Chicago Tribune: Man gets 11 years for not testifying

Activist had refused to talk about Hamas

A Palestinian activist was sentenced Wednesday to more than 11 years in prison for refusing to testify before a grand jury in 2003 about the activities of the Palestinian extremist group Hamas.

Abdelhaleem Ashqar, 49, a business professor who lives outside Washington, contended he shouldn’t have to give testimony that would aid the Israeli government in its strife with Palestinians.

“It is something I will not do as long as I live,” Ashqar said in a nearly two-hour statement at his sentencing in U.S. District Court in Chicago. He said he refused “to live as a traitor or as a collaborator.”

But U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve told Ashqar that no one — regardless of his political beliefs — can be excused from aiding a grand jury investigation after being given immunity from prosecution.

“You have disregarded your legal obligation,” St. Eve told Ashqar. “In the 1 1/2 hours that you have spoken, I have not seen any remorse from you. … I also have heard exactly the opposite.”

As the judge spoke, Ashqar’s wife, Asma, sobbed in the front row. Later, paramedics were called to treat Ashqar’s mother-in-law after she collapsed in a court hallway.

The government had accused Ashqar and Muhammad Salah, 53, a former Bridgeview grocer, of being leading members of Hamas and conspiring to support terrorism from the United States.

But a jury acquitted the two in February of the most serious terrorism-related charges but convicted both of obstruction of justice. Ashqar also was convicted of criminal contempt.

After Wednesday’s sentencing, St. Eve ordered Ashqar taken into immediate custody, agreeing with prosecutors who said he was a risk to flee. He had been confined to his Virginia home.

As Ashqar walked from the courtroom, his wife and young nephew cried and a few of his more than 50 supporters shouted protests.

The sentence of 11 years and 3 months in prison was severe for someone who refused to testify before a grand jury.

Ashqar’s attorney, William Moffitt, said in court he knew of no case in which a defendant had been sentenced to more than 5 years for similar conduct.

But St. Eve agreed with prosecutors that Ashqar’s crimes hindered an investigation into Hamas and, as a result, promoted terrorism.

That made him eligible for a more severe sentence under federal sentencing guidelines.

Afterward, Moffitt called Ashqar’s sentence “far beyond the pale” and vowed to appeal.

At the hearing, Moffitt argued that Ashqar didn’t act out of greed or self-interest.

“There is no motive here other than Dr. Ashqar’s desire to end the occupation of his homeland,” Moffitt said.

But U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald later called the sentence appropriate.

“No one — whether they have a reason that’s political or otherwise — has a right to go before a grand jury and obstruct justice,” he said.

“It’s very important that people who obstruct justice pay a price,” Fitzgerald said. When the case involves terrorism, “the price is higher — and it should be higher.”

In a long, often emotional speech, Ashqar recounted decades of what he said was brutal mistreatment of Palestinians, his family in particular.

Ashqar said that as a young man he had been arrested and beaten without cause. He blamed Israeli officials for the deaths of eight family members since 2002.

“We are determined to live in honor and dignity,” Ashqar said as he paced back and forth, sometimes raising his arms or turning toward his supporters while making a point.

Ashqar said he eventually came to the U.S,. studied in Mississippi and taught at Howard University in Washington. He said he talked to FBI agents throughout the 1990s but never became the informant they wanted him to be.

The lengthy sentence sparked dismay and disappointment in Chicago’s Muslim community, which followed the case closely, said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council of Arab-Islamic Relations’ Chicago chapter.

“He is not a threat to this country,” Rehab said. “He felt that he didn’t want to be complicit in the persecution of other Palestinians.”

But Assistant U.S. Atty. Reid Schar argued that Hamas’ bombing and shootings in the Mideast had killed Americans, innocent victims caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

He said Ashqar was a major Hamas figure who kept the group’s archives, talked to top Hamas leaders and attended a high-level meeting in 1993.

“As we sit here, he holds — in his head — critical information” about the group, Schar said. But “he chose to protect Hamas members.”

St. Eve said that she did not believe Ashqar had committed any terrorist acts or ever intended to do so. But she agreed with prosecutors and FBI officials who said they needed Ashqar’s evidence.

At one point, St. Eve quoted Ashqar’s own words from his grand jury appearance in 2003 after he had been told he would not be prosecuted for anything he said.

“I will never give evidence or cooperate in any way … no matter what the consequences to me,” Ashqar said at the time.

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