One-time ‘dirty bomb’ suspect gets 17 years for terrorism conspiracy

.MIAMI (AP) – Jose Padilla, an American once accused of plotting with al-Qaida to detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb,” was sentenced Tuesday to a relatively lenient 17-year prison term on unrelated terror support charges.

Prosecutors, who long ago dropped the “dirty bomb” claim that made Padilla infamous, had sought life sentences for Padilla and two co-defendants, but a federal judge said authorities never even proved Padilla was a terrorist.

“There is no evidence that these defendants personally maimed, kidnapped or killed anyone in the United States or elsewhere,” U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke said. “There was never a plot to overthrow the United States government.”

Cooke took into account the harsh, isolated conditions Padilla faced during the 3 1/2 years he was held in a brig, without charge, as an enemy combatant after his 2002 arrest. Defense lawyers claim he was tortured by the military, but U.S. officials denied that and Cooke never used the word torture.

Padilla, 37, and co-defendants Adham Amin Hassoun, 45, and Kifah Wael Jayyousi, 46, were convicted in August of terrorism conspiracy and material support after a three-month trial. Jurors concluded they were part of a support cell that sent recruits, money and supplies to Islamic extremists worldwide, including al-Qaida.

Padilla was billed as a “star recruit,” while Hassoun was the recruiter and Jayyousi served as a financier and propagandist in the cell’s early years, according to trial testimony.

Padilla was added to the case in late 2005, just as his legal challenges to continued detention without criminal charge were reaching the U.S. Supreme Court. Padilla was declared an enemy combatant a month after his highly publicized arrest on the purported radioactive “dirty bomb” plot, but those allegations were quietly discarded.

The strongest evidence in the case was a form Padilla completed in 2000 to attend an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan that was recovered by the CIA shortly after the U.S. invasion in late 2001. Prosecutors repeatedly invoked the al-Qaida connection and used a video of an old Osama bin Laden interview in an attempt to link the three to the world’s most notorious terrorist.

Ultimately, Cooke said at the sentencing hearing, there was not enough evidence linking Padilla and the other two men to specific acts of terrorism or victims.

Sentencing guidelines had suggested a range of 30 years to life for all three, but Cooke used her discretion to go below even the minimum. Padilla got 17 years and four months; Hassoun, 15 years and eight months; and Jayyousi, 12 years and eight months. Their prison time will probably be even less counting months already served in pretrial detention and automatic reductions for good behavior, their lawyers said.

Cooke said life sentences should be reserved for the most serious terrorist offenders, such as Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui or Terry Nichols, convicted in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Her decision means Padilla would be released when he is about 50.

“I feel good about everything. This is amazing,” said Padilla’s mother, Estela Lebron. “He’s not a terrorist. … He’s just a human being.”

All three men are likely to appeal their convictions and sentences, their lawyers said. But even they were surprised at the leniency shown by Cooke. “It is definitely a defeat for the government,” said Hassoun lawyer Jeanne Baker.