A federal judge in Chicago is sending an alleged Hamas operative to prison for 21 months, well short of the 10 years sought by prosecutors.
Judge Amy St. Eve imposed the sentence yesterday on Muhammad Salah for lying in a civil suit brought by the family of an American student killed in a Hamas attack.
"Telling the truth is the bedrock of our judicial system and a slap on the wrist will not provide a deterrent," Judge St. Eve said, according to the Associated Press. In February, a federal jury acquitted Salah and a co-defendant, Abdelhaleem Ashqar, of involvement in a racketeering conspiracy with Hamas. However, both men were convicted of obstruction of justice.
Prosecutors urged Judge St. Eve to use the evidence of Salah's contacts with Hamas to increase his sentence to the statutory maximum of 10 years, but Salah's lawyer, Michael Deutsch, said that would be akin to punishing his client for a crime of which he was acquitted. The defense recommended probation.
Addressing the court yesterday, Salah cited his patriotism and pride in America, but said nothing about Hamas, witnesses said. "It's very unfair. It's politics again," he said after the sentence was imposed, according to the AP. "You can't destroy a family just to please a bunch of zealots."
Mr. Deutsch said he was disappointed, but he added, "We see it as a victory that he just got 21 months."
A spokesman for the prosecution, Randall Samborn, declined comment.
An attorney who brought the civil suit that led to the obstruction charge, Stephen Landes, said he was satisfied with the judge's decision.
"She wanted to send an important message that in terrorism cases, civil and criminal — this wasn't some car accident case — you're in trouble if you don't tell the truth," Mr. Landes said. In the lawsuit, a magistrate awarded $156 million to the family of an American student, David Boim, who was shot and killed by a Hamas gunman in 1996 while waiting at a bus stop in the West Bank.
Mr. Landes said Judge St. Eve was "very careful" not to jeopardize the sentence by taking account of matters arguably covered by Salah's acquittal. The judge said jurors believe Salah was involved with Hamas but later cut ties to the group. She also made note of the fact that Salah served nearly five years in an Israeli jail for his involvement in Hamas. Salah said Israeli agents tortured him into confessing, but the judge said she found Salah's claims in that regard to be false. Mr. Landes said he was disappointed that Salah did not own up to his Hamas work. "There was not contrition," the lawyer said.
Mr. Deutsch told The New York Sun last week that he would "definitely" raise at sentencing President Bush's commutation of the sentence of a former White House aide convicted of obstruction of justice, I. Lewis Libby Jr. However, the attorney said he decided on further reflection not to bring up the comparison directly when addressing Judge St. Eve. "I didn't think it would be helpful. She doesn't control what the president does. She probably is sympathetic with the judge who had his sentence overruled by the president," Mr. Deutsch said. The defense attorney said he did raise the issue "obliquely" when referencing the more than 600 letters of support Salah received in connection with his sentencing. "What I said was what his community thinks is important, just as what anyone else's community thinks, including the national security community," Mr. Deutsch said.
One letter the lawyer noted yesterday was from a former editorial page editor and ombudsman for the Chicago Tribune, Donald Wycliffe.
"I wrote a letter because I felt from the very beginning of this proceeding that the principles of American justice that I grew up believing in were not being observed," Mr. Wycliffe told the Sun. He said he was referring to the restrictions placed on Salah when he became the only American officially embargoed as a terrorist.
As a result, the one-time grocery store owner needs a license to take a job or to hire a doctor or lawyer. "If there's any penalty to be paid, I think he's paid it several times," the former Tribune editor said.