Several Yemeni expats in the Detroit area who pleaded guilty to transferring millions of dollars to their war-torn native country unlawfully will not be going to prison -- after the judge cited a need for "compassion," according to a report Sunday.
One by one, U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn declined to send them to prison, even though the men had failed to register their activities as a money transfer business. Failing to do so usually carries up to five years behind bars.
Regarding his recent rulings, Cohn noted that Yemen's financial system has been in ruins and people inside the country needed help.
"Only people without compassion" would object to the light sentences, Cohn, 95, told The Associated Press. "As I've been here longer, I've come to the realization that the rules are flexible — at least to me."
The Detroit area has the highest concentration of Yemenis, a demographic that has risen amid a war in Yemen that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions more with inadequate food and health care.
The World Bank estimates that Yemenis received at least $3.3 billion in 2018 – a conservative figure by some estimates.
Since 2018, federal prosecutors in Detroit have charged nine people in an investigation of cash transfers to Yemen. Bank accounts were opened in the names of shell businesses, then used to deposit and wire roughly $90 million over a seven-year period, according to plea agreements.
All nine men have pleaded guilty to failing to register money transfer businesses or making false statements to agents.
Cohn, who has been a judge since 1979, has described the conditions in Yemen as "horrendous,” noting that sending men to prison could cause hardship in conservative Muslim families where wives often don't work outside the home.
It's unfair to "shed the traditions and practices of your homeland," Cohn said to one of the men.
Prosecutors said they had no evidence the scheme was anything more than sending money to relatives and possibly avoiding taxes, but they believed sentences within the guidelines were appropriate.
Judges don't have to follow sentencing guidelines, and Cohn rejected prison terms.
He placed six men on supervised release. Three others awaited sentencing.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.