Algerian Ahmed Ressam, the would-be “millennium bomber” who was arrested with bomb-making materials in Port Angeles in December 1999, was sentenced this morning in U.S. District Court in Seattle to 37 years in prison.
The government had sought a sentence of 65 years to life, much longer than the previous two 22-year sentences Ressam had been given. However, U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenour said “this case evokes our greatest fears … But fear is not, nor should it ever be, a guideline for a sentencing judge. It is a foul ingredient …”
The government sought the longer sentence because, federal prosecutors said, Ressam reneged on an agreement to cooperate with investigators. But Coughenour took the government to task, noting Ressam’s refusal to cooperate was likely a “deranged protest” resulting from his poor treatment by the government.
“I will not sentence a man to 50 lashes and then 50 more for getting blood on the whip,” said Coughenour, who called Ressam’s deterioration in the past 13 years he’s spent behind bars “stunning.”
(To read Coughenour’s sentencing order, click here.)
Ressam did not speak, but in a written statement submitted earlier he said his agreement to cooperate with the government was made under duress.
“I have no power to stop this injustice but only exonerate myself from it,” the statement read. “You can judge me as you wish, I will not object to any of your sentences.”
It marked the third time Ressam has come before Coughenour for sentencing. On two previous occasions, Coughenour sentenced Ressam to 22 years in prison, but both sentences were overturned.
Ressam was arrested Dec. 14, 1999, in Port Angeles after coming off the ferry from Victoria, B.C. Inspectors found electronic timers, powders and liquids in the trunk of his rental car that turned out to be the makings of a powerful bomb. The investigation that followed showed Ressam had been recruited by a radical Islamic cell in Montreal and had trained in Osama bin Laden-sponsored terrorism camps in Afghanistan. His target was Los Angeles International Airport.
Coughenour presided over Ressam’s trial in the spring of 2001, which the judge moved from Seattle to Los Angeles because of widespread publicity in Western Washington. Ressam later credited the fairness of the proceedings when he decided to cooperate with federal authorities after he was convicted of attempting to plant a powerful suitcase bomb at the Los Angeles airport in 1999.
Ressam became a crucial source of information about al-Qaida in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, and as a result federal prosecutors initially suggested a sentence of around 35 years for crimes that could have resulted in life in prison, including a count of conspiracy to commit an act of international terrorism. Sentencing guidelines suggested a 65-year sentence.
Prosecutors appealed when Coughenour first imposed the 22-year sentence in 2005.
Ressam has been held in solitary confinement and over years of repeated questioning had soured on his cooperation. When the case was sent back to Coughenour for a procedural error in 2008, prosecutors urged the judge to impose the life sentence, saying Ressam had reneged on his deal. Ressam, in the meantime, fired his lawyers and recanted everything he had ever said.
The Department of Justice told the judge that prosecutors in New York had been forced to drop charges against two other terrorism suspects — including the man believed to be al-Qaida’s chief recruiter in Western Europe — whose prosecutions turned on Ressam’s testimony.
Even so, Coughenour imposed the same sentence in July 2005, saying that the information Ressam provided when he was cooperating almost certainly stopped other attacks and saved lives. The government appealed that sentence.
In February 2010, a divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted to reject the sentence — for the second time — by Coughenour, questioning his impartiality and saying that the sentence failed to protect the public from the al-Qaida-trained terrorist.