11 year jail for refusing testimony
By Abdus Sattar Ghazali
November 21, 2007 . Council on American-Muslim Relations, a leading civic rights group, today expressed dismay at the more than 11 year sentence given to Dr. Abdelhaleem Ashqar, a Palestinian-American and former professor at Washington's Howard University, for refusing to testify before a grand jury looking into possible terror financing in the Middle East.
In Chicago, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve today sentenced Abdelhaleem Ashqar to more than 11 years in prison and fined $5,000 for refusing to testify before the federal grand jury.
Although a jury in February this year acquitted Dr. Ashqar of all terror-related charges, the federal prosecution sought a life term, a sentence that would not normally be imposed unless he had been convicted of the most serious charge against him.
Before being sentenced, Dr. Ashqar delivered a nearly two-hour passionate statement describing the suffering of Palestinian people under the Israeli occupation.
He said he would rather go to prison than betray his people as they strive to free themselves from Israeli occupation. "The only option was to become a traitor or collaborator and that is something that I can't do and will never do as long as I live," he told the court.
"We are dismayed that the judge's sentence apparently ignores Dr. Ashqar's acquittal on the most serious charges and instead reflects a prison term that could only have been imposed if he had actually been convicted of those charges," said CAIR-Chicago Executive Director Ahmed Rehab. "The excessive sentence is not in the spirit of the American justice system."
"This apparently politically-motivated sentence sends the unfortunate message that when American Muslims are involved, a jury's decision may be ignored," said CAIR-Chicago Civil Rights Coordinator Christina Abraham.
Ashqar was convicted earlier this year of criminal contempt and obstruction of justice for refusing to testify in 2003 before a grand jury investigating the Palestinian militant movement Hamas.
He and co-defendant Muhammad Salah were acquitted of taking part in a racketeering conspiracy aimed at bankrolling Hamas militants. But prosecutors presented telephone records showing that Ashqar was in contact with Hamas leaders.
Federal prosecutors said that Ashqar's refusal to testify made it harder to investigate violent crimes committed by Hamas. Some coded messages that if understood might help to prevent acts of terrorism remain incomprehensible to investigators, prosecutors said.
"A man who knows (the meaning) is sitting right across the room but he won't tell us," Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid J. Schar told U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve.
St. Eve said that Ashqar's refusal to testify was motivated by a desire to "promote terrorism." That toughened the federal sentencing guidelines and guaranteed that he would get a stiff sentence.
Defense attorneys said St. Eve imposed an unusually stiff sentence on Ashqar given the complex political background. In addition to 135 months in prison he was given a $5,000 fine.
"This is an obscene sentence," said Michael E. Deutsch, an attorney for Salah, who was convicted of lying on a document and sentenced to 22 months in prison. Deutsch said five years was the most he had expected.
Deutsch noted that another man, Sharif Alwan, who refused to testify before a grand jury in the same investigation was sentenced to two years.
Ashqar attorney William Moffitt compared his client with Nelson Mandela who served 27 years in South Africa.
In a similar case, Dr. Sami Al-Arian, former Florida University Professor, is refusing to testify before the Alexandria, Va.-based grand jury. Though a Florida jury acquitted him or deadlocked on all counts in 2005, the Feds kept him in prison.
Faced with a retrial, Al-Arian agreed last year to plead guilty to the least serious charge in exchange for what was supposed to be a small addition sentence and his deportation. But Al-Arian's nightmare continues. First, federal Judge James Moody ignored prosecutors' recommendations and sentenced Al-Arian to the maximum possible.
Under the longer sentence, Al-Arian's release was set for April 13, 2007. But he is now facing an indefinite extension of his prison sentence.
Last year, Gordon Kromberg, the assistant U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia, had Al-Arian transferred to Virginia to testify in an investigation into a Muslim charity there--despite an agreement with Florida prosecutors, recorded in court transcripts, that he would be exempt from future testimony.
When he refused to testify, Al-Arian was found guilty of civil contempt--adding an additional 18 months onto his sentence and opening up the possibility that the government can keep him in prison indefinitely by extending the contempt charge, which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld.
The U.S. government has gone out of its way to make an example of outspoken advocates for Palestinian rights.