Judge tosses terror case convictions, orders prisoner freed

A federal judge in Virginia called for the immediate release Thursday of a former Marine who was training with a Pakistani terrorist group shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks occurred.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Alexandria ordered several counts of Seifullah Chapman's conviction vacated and ordered the release of Chapman, who was serving a 65-year sentence.

Chapman traveled to Pakistan before the Sept. 11 attacks to train with a group called Lashkar-e-Taiba. After 9/11, Chapman ended his training and returned to the U.S.

In April, the Supreme Court struck down a law allowing deportation of some immigrants who commit crimes. The high court ruled the law was unconstitutionally vague about what crimes would prompt deportation. Four terrorism defendants, including Chapman, argued they were convicted under a law that was similarly vague about describing a "crime of violence."

In April, Brinkema demanded the government show cause for why she shouldn't vacate the convictions obtained more than a decade ago against what prosecutors called a "Virginia jihad network," which used paintball games in the woods near Fredericksburg as a means of training for holy war. Several group members traveled to Pakistan after Sept. 11 with the goal of joining the Taliban in Afghanistan. At trial, several said they were persuaded to go when the group's spiritual leader, Ali Al-Timimi, said after Sept. 11 that the world was on the verge of an apocalyptic battle between Muslims and nonbelievers.

Chapman admitted attending the Lashkar camp in August 2001 but said he did so not to train for holy war but for a grueling physical challenge in the rugged Pakistani mountains.

Al-Timimi, of Falls Church, was convicted of soliciting treason, among other counts, and sentenced to life in prison.

Masoud Khan, on the other hand, traveled to Pakistan after Sept. 11 to join Lashkar, which group members believed was the best way to get necessary training to join the Taliban. Khan is serving a life sentence.

The fourth defendant affected by Brinkema's order, Ismail Royer, is already out of prison after serving more than a decade. He struck a plea deal in which he admitted helping some group members make contact with Lashkar.

Royer said by phone Thursday that the development in Chapman's case makes him hopeful for his own.

"Even though it wouldn't have a great deal of practical impact, it would eliminate a firearms charge," he said.

Chapman's counts of conviction remain, but Brinkema noted that he had already served more than the 10 years he was sentenced to for the remaining convictions.

Brinkema has already said she objected to being required under federal law to impose sentences she considered "draconian" and suggested she would have preferred to impose sentences of only 10 years against Chapman and Khan.

Chapman and Khan already had their sentences reduced once before. Those reductions occurred in 2005 after the Supreme Court tossed out mandatory sentencing guidelines.