Algerian Ahmed Ressam, the would-be "millennium bomber," was sentenced Wednesday morning to 37 years in prison.
Ahmed Ressam, the al-Qaida-trained Algerian who planned to kill holiday travelers at the start of the new millennium by setting off a bomb at the Los Angeles International Airport, on Wednesday was handed a 37-year prison sentence by a federal judge who rejected the government’s pleas for a life sentence and its contention that Ressam would pose a threat to America if he’s ever released.
It was the third time Ressam, now 45, has appeared for sentencing before U.S. District Judge John Coughenour, who twice previously imposed a 22-year prison sentence because of Ressam’s cooperation after his April 2001 conviction on terrorism and bomb-related charges.
In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Ressam became a substantial resource to law-enforcement and intelligence agents, revealing the leaders and inner workings of al-Qaida in North America and Europe.
However, Ressam later stopped cooperating with investigators, prompting the government to appeal both previous sentences.
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Last spring, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Coughenour had abused his discretion and that a 22-year sentence was “substantively unreasonable,” and ordered him to resentence Ressam with an eye toward a longer prison term. It was the second time the 9th Circuit Court vacated Ressam’s sentence, the first time coming in August 2008.
Coughenour obliged Wednesday with an 18-page written sentencing order he read from the bench that articulated the reasons he arrived at the 37-year sentence. He also explained why he rejected the government’s insistence that Ressam — who already has served more than 12 years, most of it in solitary confinement — would pose a threat to the U.S. when he is released at age 70.
“This case provokes our greatest fears,” he said. “But fear is not, nor has it ever been, the guide for a federal sentencing judge.”
Government lawyers argued that any consideration given to Ressam evaporated when he stopped cooperating. Assistant U.S. Attorney Helen Brunner told the judge Wednesday that as far as the government was concerned, Ressam was in the same position as the day the jury convicted him of nine terrorism- and bomb-related charges and he was facing 65 years to life.
U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said she will have to consult with the Department of Justice’s National Security Division to determine whether the government will appeal again.
“This case demonstrates the strength of our nation,” Durkan said. “We afforded a man who sought to do us the greatest harm the full due process of the law. We will carefully review Judge Coughenour’s ruling. Our duty is to ensure a just result for the American people.”
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, crowded with holiday crowds before the start of the new millennium.
Coughenour presided over Ressam’s trial in the spring of 2001. He moved the trial 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 his conviction.
During Wednesday’s sentencing, Coughenour said the government’s position on Ressam’s punishment seemed to “change almost monthly.”
Before his trial, the government offered Ressam a 27-year deal without cooperation. During his first sentencing, in 2005, the government asked for 35 years, citing Ressam’s change of heart and refusal to cooperate.
At the second sentencing, in 2008, the government sought 45 years, and then upped it to life after a defiant Ressam said he would accept any sentence that was given.
Ressam’s defense had asked for between 30 and 34 years. Coughenour’s 37-year sentence lands almost exactly between the defense minimum and the government’s last recommendation of 45 years.
In arriving at that number, Coughenour refigured the sentencing calculations and concluded that the government had improperly “double counted” some offenses, resulting in an inflated sentence.
And he said the government could only blame itself for Ressam’s lack of cooperation, which he concluded was due mostly to the harsh treatment he received at the hands of the FBI and prosecutors from New York who took over his handling after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Ressam spends 23 hours a day alone in an 87-square-foot cell with poured-concrete furniture, the judge noted.
Ressam has complained over the years of repeated interrogations and long hours in solitary confinement, and a psychiatrist who has seen him concluded years ago that Ressam has been “permanently and severely impaired” by his prolonged isolation.
Coughenour, who has observed Ressam from the outset of the case, said Wednesday that “his deterioration has been marked and stunning.”
“The wisdom of solitary confinement may be open for debate, but the effect that it has had on Mr. Ressam is not,” the judge said.
Coughenour said he is convinced that Ressam’s “repudiation was not measured obstructionism, but a deranged protest” and said it was his “ethical responsibility not to hold him culpable for the harmful and involuntary consequences of his punishment.”
“I will not sentence a man to 50 lashes with a whip, and then 50 more for getting blood on the whip,” he said.
Ressam, sat with his arms crossed throughout the hearing and did not speak. In a brief written statement submitted earlier, he said his agreement to cooperate with the government was made under duress. But he also apologized for his actions in 1999 and said he was “against killing innocent people of any gender, color or religion.”
“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.”
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.