A U.S. federal appeals court overturned the 22-year sentence for convicted "millennium bomber" Ahmed Ressam, calling it unreasonably lenient.
In a 7-4 split decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favour of the government's appeal and sent the case back to a federal judge in Seattle for resentencing for a third time.
Ressam, a sometime Montreal resident, was arrested in Washington state in 1999 on his way to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in what became known as the millennium terror plot.
He had a bogus Canadian passport but his nervousness after arriving on a ferry from Canada prompted a search of his rental car. Authorities found more than 45 kilograms of chemicals, along with timing devices and other equipment, to make a fertilizer-derived nitrate bomb.
Plot was 'horrific', court says
The court, which contains some of the nation's most liberal judges, said that Ressam's plot to blow up the airport on New Year's Eve 1999, was "horrific" and intended to intimidate the nation and the world. "Had Ressam succeeded, 'LAX' may well have entered our vocabulary as a term analogous to 'the Oklahoma City bombing' or '9/11,'" according to a majority decision written by Judge Richard R. Clifton.
Investigators have said Ressam, an Algerian national, attended three training camps for Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan between March 1998 and February 1999.
He was convicted of nine criminal counts, but his case went through a complicated process with changes of venue and appeals from both sides. The trial was held in Los Angeles.
Ressam reached a deal with U.S. prosecutors to provide information about other terrorism suspects in exchange for a shorter sentence.
The U.S. government acknowledged that some of the information Ressam provided following his conviction was useful. But he quit talking to investigators in early 2003, and without his information, cases against other accused terrorists fell apart.
Sentence decades shorter than guidelines recommended
The 22-year sentence was twice imposed by a federal judge in Seattle, well short of the 65 years to life recommended by sentencing guidelines.
The federal judge who sentenced Ressam said he looked at several factors, balancing the harm Ressam planned with the good his cooperation had done in fighting terrorism. But the appeals court said U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour in Seattle committed a "clear error of judgment."
"We acknowledge that 22 years is not a trivial period of time" but it is decades shorter than the recommended sentence from federal guidelines, said the judges in the majority opinion. It noted that under the current sentence, Ressam would be only 51 when he is released from prison and still able to do damage. "Ressam demonstrated strongly held beliefs and a willingness to attack American interests. If and when he is released, he could try again to blow up LAX or to launch some other attack," according to the decision.
Dissenting judges argued that the court majority was treating terrorism differently from other crimes and was not basing its decision on the legal merits. They argued that the sentence was reached properly and should stand. "Even if we have to grit our teeth to do so, we should let it be," said the opinion written by Judge Mary M. Schroeder. The case now returns to Seattle for resentencing.
"Obviously, I'm disappointed that we have to go through another sentencing," said Tom Hillier, the federal public defender who argued the case before the appellate court in Seattle. "It's been a long haul for Ahmed. But when it comes to terrorism cases, there are some fairly strong opinions on what should be" the sentence.
He said the judge will have to impose a sentence longer than 22 years but the appellate court did not specify any specific length.