December 3, 2008 in City

Bombing plotter could face 45 years

By GENE JOHNSON Associated Press

SEATTLE – Federal prosecutors today will ask a judge to more than double the 22-year sentence he gave to an al-Qaida-trained terrorist convicted of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport at the turn of the millennium.

In recent years, Ahmed Ressam has taken back statements he made implicating other terrorists, prosecutors said, and he doesn’t deserve the leniency U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour showed him in 2005. The original sentence has been vacated by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Ressam is now recanting his statements to provide assistance to those who have similarly sought to bring death and destruction to the United States or the people of other Western countries,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Mark Bartlett and Helen Brunner wrote in a sentencing memo. “His actions demonstrate that he continues to be the person who decided in 1999 that it was his role to punish the United States through the death of innocents.”

U.S. border guards in Port Angeles, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, arrested Ressam, an Algerian national, as he drove a rented car packed with explosives off a ferry from British Columbia in December 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. Hoping to avoid a life sentence, he began cooperating with international terrorism investigators, telling them about training camps he had attended in Afghanistan and al-Qaida’s use of safe houses, among other things.

The government acknowledges that some of the information Ressam provided was useful. In one case, it helped to prevent the mishandling and potential detonation of the shoe bomb that Richard Reid attempted to light aboard an American Airlines flight in December 2001.

Ressam also testified against two co-conspirators, helping to convict them.

But by early 2003, Ressam quit talking. His lawyers insisted long periods in solitary confinement had taken their toll on his mental state; prosecutors argued that it was because they would not agree to recommend a sentence of less than 27 years.

In 2005, Coughenour sentenced Ressam to 22 years, essentially splitting the difference between what prosecutors and defense attorneys requested. Coughenour noted that before trial, the government offered Ressam a sentence of 25 years if he would plead guilty – no cooperation necessary – and the judge used that as a starting point in determining the sentence.

Both sides appealed the sentence, with the government arguing it was too light and Ressam’s lawyers challenging his conviction on one charge. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction in May, and the 9th Circuit sent the case back to Coughenour for resentencing in accordance with recent changes in federal sentencing procedures.

Ressam, who received permission last month to ditch his lawyers and represent himself, has not filed a sentencing memo. Prosecutors are now asking for 45 years – a decade more than they asked for last time – and they cite the problems Ressam caused by halting his cooperation.

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