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In Padilla case, no life sentence

The judge cited harsh military detention to justify a lighter term of 17 years in prison.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 23, 2008


Jose Padilla, a former Taco Bell employee from south Florida who converted to Islam and attended an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, was sentenced Tuesday to 17 years and four months in prison for his role in what prosecutors say was a global conspiracy to wage violent jihad.

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No evidence was presented at Mr. Padilla's four-month trial linking him to a specific violent act – either planned or carried out. But prosecutors said his attendance at the training camp demonstrated his intent to engage in terrorism. They called him a "trained Al Qaeda killer," and said life in prison was "the only appropriate punishment."

US District Judge Marcia Cooke disagreed, authorizing a substantial downward departure from federal sentencing guidelines that called for 30 years to life in prison.

She justified the lighter sentence in part because of Padilla's earlier detention without charge and severe interrogation as an enemy combatant in a South Carolina military prison.

"I do find that the conditions were so harsh for Mr. Padilla that they warrant consideration of the court's fashioning of a sentence in this case," Judge Cooke told the hushed courtroom.

The lighter sentence was a significant setback for federal prosecutors.

"The crimes here are serious," Cooke said. But she added, "There is no evidence that these defendants personally maimed, killed, or kidnapped anyone in the United States or elsewhere."

The judge stressed that Padilla's sentence and those handed down for two codefendants would serve as a warning to others that support for violent activities overseas "will not be tolerated."

Despite Padilla's lower prison sentence, the three convictions in the case mark an important victory for US government officials working to stanch the flow of money and other support from America to various terror groups operating overseas, legal analysts say.

It puts individuals who may be sympathetic to Al Qaeda or other violent overseas groups on notice that the government will take aggressive action against those perceived to be helping America's armed enemies abroad.

But the Padilla case also represents a threat to civil liberties, according to defense lawyers and other analysts. If upheld on appeal, the case against Padilla and his two codefendants could empower federal prosecutors in the future to target outspoken American Muslims for their political advocacy in support of militant efforts in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

"The government has not made America any safer. It has just made America less free," William Swor, attorney for co-defendant Kifah Jayyousi, told the Associated Press.

Padilla, Mr. Jayyousi, and Adham Hassoun were convicted in August of participating in a US-based support cell for what prosecutors characterized as a wide-ranging militant Muslim conspiracy to wage religiously motivated terrorism in troubled areas around the world.

Mr. Hassoun and Jayyousi were found guilty of providing money, equipment, recruits, or other support to Muslim groups operating in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Lebanon, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Padilla was identified in the conspiracy as a recruit who attended the training camp.