CHICAGO – A former professor whose only option was to become a traitor if he talked about his role in a Palestinian terrorist network received 11 years in prison for refusing to testify before a grand jury.
"The only option was to become a traitor or a collaborator, and this is something that I can't do and will never do as long as I live," said Abdelhaleem Ashqar, 49, a former associate professor of business at Washington's Howard University.
In a passionate statement before sentencing, Ashqar painted a grim picture of the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and said some of his own relatives had been killed or jailed.
He said he would rather go to prison than betray his people.
Ashquar was taken into custody by federal marshals immediately after the sentencing, during which prosecutors warned that he might flee.
Earlier this year he was convicted of criminal contempt and obstruction of justice for refusing to testify in 2003 before a grand jury investigating the Palestinian militant movement Hamas.
He and co-defendant Muhammad Salah were acquitted of taking part in a racketeering conspiracy aimed at bankrolling Hamas in its violent attacks on the government of Israel. But prosecutors presented telephone records showing that Ashqar was in contact with Hamas leaders.
The judge found that Ashqar's refusal to testify was motivated by a desire to "promote terrorism." That toughened the federal sentencing guidelines and guaranteed that he would get a stiff sentence.
One defense attorney called the length of the sentence "obscene."
While Ashqar accepted his sentence stoically, a woman identified by defense attorneys as Ashqar's mother-in-law screamed furiously at the prosecutors in Arabic. She later collapsed in the lobby and was taken to a hospital.
Defense attorneys said the judge imposed an unusually stiff sentence given the complex political background. In addition to 135 months in prison, he was given a $5,000 fine.
"This is an obscene sentence," said Michael E. Deutsch, an attorney for Salah, who was convicted of lying on a document and sentenced to 22 months in prison. Deutsch said five years was the most he had expected.
Deutsch noted that another man, Sharif Alwan, who refused to testify before a grand jury in the same investigation was sentenced to two years.
Ashqar attorney William Moffitt compared his client with Nelson Mandela, who served 27 years in South Africa.
But U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald told reporters the sentence "may be on the high end, but it should be."