Convicted terrorism conspirator Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen once accused of plotting with Al Qaeda to blow up a radioactive "dirty bomb" in a major city, was sentenced Tuesday to 17 years and four months in prison on charges that do not mention those initial allegations.
The sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke marks another step in the extraordinary personal and legal odyssey for the 37-year-old Muslim convert, a U.S. citizen who was held for 3 1/2 years as an enemy combatant after his 2002 arrest and the "dirty bomb" allegations. He had faced up to life in prison.
Cooke said she was giving Padilla some credit — over the objections of federal prosecutors — for his lengthy military detention at a Navy jail in South Carolina. She agreed with defense lawyers that Padilla was subjected to "harsh conditions" and "extreme environmental stresses" while there.
"I do find that the conditions were so harsh for Mr. Padilla ... they warrant consideration in the sentencing in this case," the judge said. However, he did not get credit for time served.
Padilla's lawyers claimed his treatment amounted to torture, which U.S. officials have repeatedly denied. His attorneys say he was forced to stand in painful stress positions, given LSD or other drugs as "truth serum," deprived of sleep and even a mattress for extended periods and subjected to loud noises, extreme heat and cold and noxious odors.
Cooke also imposed prison terms on two other men of Middle Eastern origin who were convicted of conspiracy and material support charges along with Padilla in August. The three were part of a North American support cell for Al Qaeda and other Islamic extremists around the world, prosecutors said.
But Cooke said that as serious as the conspiracy was, there was no evidence linking the men to specific acts of terrorism anywhere.
"There is no evidence that these defendants personally maimed, kidnapped or killed anyone in the United States or elsewhere," she said.
Padilla was added in 2005 to an existing Miami terrorism support case just as the U.S. Supreme Court was considering his challenge to President George W. Bush's decision to hold him in custody indefinitely without charge. The "dirty bomb" charges were quietly discarded and were never part of the criminal case.
Cooke sentenced Padilla's recruiter, 45-year-old Adham Amin Hassoun, to 15 years and eight months in prison and the third defendant, 46-year-old Kifah Wael Jayyousi, to 12 years and eight months. Jayyousi was a financier and propagandist for the cell that assisted Islamic extremists in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere, according to trial testimony. Both also faced life in prison.
Padilla's mother, Estela Lebron, smiled at reporters in the courtroom when the sentence was announced. Outside the courthouse, she questioned whether the Bush administration had misplaced its priorities in prosecuting her son. She also voiced relief that he did not get the maximum sentence.
"I feel good about everything. This is amazing."
Attorneys for Hassoun and Jayyousi were also gratified, but repeated that they will appeal their convictions and sentences, as will Padilla.
"It is definitely a defeat for the government," said Hassoun lawyer Jeanne Baker.
"The government has not made America any safer ... It has just made America less free," said William Swor, who represents Jayyousi.
The U.S. Justice Department issued a short statement praising the efforts of prosecutors and investigators involved in the long-running case.
"Thanks to their efforts, the defendants' North American support cell has been dismantled and can no longer send money and jihadist recruits to conflicts overseas," said Kenneth L. Wainstein, assistant attorney general for national security.
The men were convicted after a three-month trial based on tens of thousands of FBI telephone intercepts collected over an eight-year investigation and a form Padilla filled out in 2000 to attend an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.
Padilla, a former Chicago gang member with a long criminal record, converted to Islam in prison and was recruited by Hassoun while attending a mosque in the suburban Miami city of Sunrise.
Padilla sought a sentence of no more than 10 years. Hassoun asked for 15 years or less and Jayyousi for no more than five years.
Padilla's arrest was initially portrayed by the Bush administration as an important victory in the months immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, and later was seen as a symbol of the administration's zeal to prevent homegrown terrorism. Prosecutors repeatedly invoked Al Qaeda and Usama bin Laden in the criminal case
Civil liberties groups and Padilla's lawyers called his detention unconstitutional for someone born in the United States and contended that he was only charged criminally because the U.S. Supreme Court appeared poised to order him either charged or released.
Jurors in the criminal case never heard Padilla's full history, which according to U.S. officials included a graduation from the Al Qaeda terror camp, a plot to detonate the "dirty bomb" and a plot to fill apartments with natural gas and blow them up. Much of what Padilla supposedly told interrogators during his long detention as an enemy combatant could not be used in court because he had no access to a lawyer and was not read his constitutional rights.
Padilla's lawyers argued for a lenient sentence, in part because of his minor role in the conspiracy that was the subject of last year's trial and because of claims that he was mistreated and tortured while he was held at the Navy brig. U.S. officials denied those claims repeatedly.
Attorneys for Hassoun and Jayyousi argued that any assistance they provided overseas was for peaceful purposes and to help persecuted Muslims in violent countries. But FBI agents testified that their charitable work was a cover for violent jihad, which they frequently discussed in code using words such as "tourism" and "football."