Terrorist captured in Port Angeles resentenced to 22 years; federal prosecutors irked

By Gene Johnson
The Associated Press

SEATTLE — To the outrage of federal prosecutors, a judge today re-imposed a 22-year prison sentence for Ahmed Ressam, an al-Qaida-trained terrorist convicted of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport at the turn of the millennium.

U.S. District Judge John Coughenour kept the same punishment he imposed in 2005 — one that was vacated by an appeals court that asked him to better explain his rationale for the sentence.

Both the Justice Department and Ressam himself asked the judge for a life term, and Coughenour determined that the guideline range for Ressam’s offenses was 65 years to life. But Coughenour noted the “invaluable” information that Ressam provided to terrorism investigators after his 2001 trial, and said failing to reflect that in the sentence would discourage other terrorists from cooperating when they’re caught.

Although Ressam, an Algerian national, told Coughenour in court that he recanted statements he made earlier implicating other alleged terrorists — “I did not know what I was saying,” he claimed — the judge said the information Ressam provided likely saved innocent lives.

“Its importance has not changed in my analysis today,” Coughenour said.

Prosecutors asked for 45 years in a sentencing memo filed last week. But they changed their recommendation to life after hearing Ressam tell the judge he recanted his earlier cooperation.

“I have escaped my words, finally,” Ressam said through an interpreter. “Sentence me to life in prison or anything you wish. I will have no objection to your sentence. Thank you.”

U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan was incensed by the judge’s decision and said he would immediately seek permission from the Justice Department to appeal.

“To say I’m profoundly disappointed would be an understatement,” Sullivan said, adding that Ressam “deserves to be locked up until he dies.”

U.S. Customs inspectors in Port Angeles arrested Ressam as he drove a rented car packed with explosives off the MV Coho ferry from Victoria on Dec. 14, 1999. The ensuing scare prompted Seattle officials to cancel some millennium celebrations at the Space Needle, though investigators determined Ressam’s target was a terminal at LAX, busy with holiday travel.

A jury convicted Ressam in 2001 of nine offenses, including an act of international terrorism, smuggling explosives and presenting a false passport.

Last modified: December 03. 2008 1:25PM
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