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Judge sentences Algerian national guilty of L.A. bomb plot to 37 years

By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times –

SEATTLE — A federal judge criticized the effect of solitary confinement Wednesday and refused to impose a life sentence on Ahmed Ressam, convicted in 2001 in a plot to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. Instead, he ordered the Algerian national to serve 37 years in prison.

U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour said Ressam’s decision to stop providing evidence against fellow al-Qaida suspects was not “obstructionism,” as U.S. prosecutors argued in seeking a life sentence, but “a deranged protest” against the severe conditions of his imprisonment.

The changes in Ressam as a result of his confinement for the last 12 years — alone in a cell the size of a small bathroom — were “marked and stunning,” the judge said.

“It is my ethical responsibility not to hold him culpable for the harmful and involuntary consequences of that punishment,” Coughenour said. “I will not sentence a man to 50 lashes with a whip, and then 50 more for getting blood on the whip.”

The hearing Wednesday morning in a federal courtroom in Seattle marked the end of several years of tangled legal proceedings for Ressam, 45, who was arrested in Port Angeles, Wash., in 1999 after driving off a ferry from Canada in a car with a trunk full of explosives. He was convicted on terrorism and other charges in the spring of 2001 in a plot federal authorities said was designed to strike the Los Angeles airport.

Ressam agreed to provide evidence against other terrorist suspects and initially he did, but then refused to provide further help and recanted some of his previous statements.

U.S. authorities were forced to abandon prosecutions in at least two cases targeting Abu Doha, identified by U.S. authorities as one of Europe’s highest-ranking al-Qaida figures, and Samir Ait Mohamed, who allegedly helped Ressam in the Los Angeles bombing conspiracy.

The district court twice had sentenced Ressam to 22 years in prison, in part reflecting his previous cooperation, and twice a federal appeals court sent the case back, calling the sentences too lenient. Coughenour said his new sentence reflected the legal sentencing guidelines required by the appeals court and also Ressam’s failure to extend his cooperation.

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