A Chicago medical van driver accused by the government of providing money to Hamas terrorists was sentenced Wednesday to 21 months in federal prison for lying under oath in a civil lawsuit.
Muhammad Salah, 54, was also fined $25,000 by U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service.
“Telling the truth is the bedrock of our judicial system and a slap on the wrist will not provide a deterrent,” St. Eve said, turning down emotional appeals from the defense for probation instead of a prison term.
She gave Salah, a former grocer, until Oct. 11 to surrender.
As CBS 2’s Rafael Romo reports, Salah, who was acquitted in February of terrorism charges, was convicted of obstruction of justice, a lesser offense.
“If they’re going to start prosecuting people for filing false interrogatories, there’s going to be hundreds of parties and lawyers brought before the bar,” said defense attorney Michael Deutsch.
In the courtroom, Deutsch delivered a passionate plea for leniency. But in reading her sentence, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve told Salah, “You have not taken any responsibility for the offense that you have committed and the court doesn’t take that lightly.”
Salah was surrounded by members of his family and dozens of supporters from Chicago’s Muslim community.
“It’s a sad day for the Muslim community,” said Christina Abraham of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “They poured their hearts with support of this case. They wrote about 650 letters regarding this case. They packed the courtroom every day.”
Salah originally faced life in prison, but was acquitted of charges tying him to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.
“Scooter Libby just got prosecuted for five counts of obstruction of justice and he walked. Alberto Gonzalez shoud be investigated for obstruction of justice,” said Salah family friend Laura Alkhawam. “Don’t prosecute people who are good and serve their communities.”
Salah’s supporters sent the judge 640 letters asking for leniency and describing the defendant as a family man, a teacher and a mentor.
When the indictment originally was announced, then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft called it a major step in the war on terrorism, saying said Salah and co-defendant Abdelhaleem Ashqar operated “a U.S.-based terrorist recruiting and financing cell.”
But a jury on Feb. 1 acquitted Salah and Ashqar of taking part in a racketeering conspiracy aimed at bankrolling the terrorist group Hamas.
The same jury, however, did convict Salah of a single count of obstruction of justice for lying under oath on a written questionnaire involving the shooting death in Israel of an American teenager, David Boim. The Boim family had sued Salah and a number of Islamic charities, claiming that they had funneled money to Hamas.
Among other things, Salah omitted mention of ties to Hamas.
The jury convicted Ashqar, a former business professor, of refusing to testify before a federal grand jury after he had been granted immunity from prosecution. He will be sentenced at a later date.
Prosecutors had asked St. Eve to sentence Salah to 10 years; Deutsch had asked for probation.
St. Eve imposed the minimum sentence under advisory federal sentencing guidelines, which called for a term of 21 to 27 months in prison. Salah could have gotten a life sentence if convicted of racketeering.
“A sentence of imprisonment is critically important to demonstrate that what he has been convicted of is fundamental”, said prosecutor Joseph Ferguson.
Salah addressed the court, describing the United States as “the nation of nations.”
“I was homeless and it gave me a home, I was stateless and it gave me a state,” he said. After court, he seemed bitter.
“It’s unfair, it’s very unfair. It’s politics again,” Salah told a reporter. “You can’t destroy a family just to please a bunch of zealots.”
Salah served a 4 1/2-year prison sentence in Israel for aiding Hamas and returned to the United States after he was released in 1997.
While in prison, he confessed to aiding Hamas. He now claims he was tortured into making the statements by tough Israeli interrogators.
Much of the racketeering conspiracy count against Salah involved the same alleged wrongdoing for which he was jailed in Israel. The double jeopardy rule against trying a defendant twice on the same charge did not apply in Salah’s case because his conviction was in a foreign court.
The star witnesses against him at his trial in Chicago were members of the Israeli security service, who testified under aliases in a cleared courtroom out of concern about possible reprisals by Hamas sympathizers.
After delivering their verdict, jurors refused to discuss why they decided to acquit Salah and Ashqar of racketeering.
But St. Eve told the court that she had spoken with the jurors and they believed the testimony of the Israeli security agents. But she said the jurors also believed that Salah had withdrawn from the conspiracy.
She declined to stiffen Salah’s sentence on the grounds that he had been involved in terrorist activity saying he had been acquitted of the charge. “I also think it is significant that on the conduct (terrorism) he has already served five years in Israel,” she said.
Deutsch said he would decide in the next few days whether to appeal.
“I don’t see any reason to send this guy to prison,” Deutsch said. “But when the government is jumping up and down and asking for 10 years, it’s difficult.”
Federal prosecutors declined to comment.
In an emotional, arm-waving appeal for leniency that lasted more than an hour, Deutsch told St. Eve that sending Salah to prison would send the wrong message and would seem unfair to Chicago’s Muslim community.
St. Eve said, however, that the sentence “has nothing to do with the fact that Mr. Salah is a Muslim and comes from the Muslim community.”
“The message to the community is that you cannot lie in a court of law,” St. Eve said.
Copyright © 2007 MMVII, CBS Broadcasting Inc.