'Terror' Case Against Student Evaporates
MANHATTAN (CN) - Tunisian student Ahmed Abassi will be released from prison and deported on visa fraud charges after prosecutors acknowledged that he had "flatly refused to assist" in a plot to derail a train from New York to Canada, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.
During the brief sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Miriam Cederbaum immediately announced her intention to follow the probation department's finding not to extend Abassi's incarceration in a federal prison beyond the 15 months he already has served.
"I hope you will think very seriously of the events of the last year, and always decide to abide by the laws of the United States," Cederbaum told the defendant.
"Thank you, your honor," Abassi replied, through a translator. "I agree with you."
Abassi, 27, gave his federal defender Sabrina Shroff a big hug after receiving his sentence.
In June, Abassi pleaded down his charges from terrorism-related offenses to a visa fraud count after his lawyers discovered exonerating evidence linked to a government informant's role.
Abassi had been a student and teacher in Laval University in Quebec, Canada, living with his soon-to-be-wife, when he became the target of a terrorism investigation into a fellow Tunisian, Chiheb Esseghaier.
After Abassi returned to Tunisia to get married two years ago, the Canadian government revoked his passport, and his wife returned to Quebec for her studies. Abassi said his brother had been in a car accident that left him comatose.
Around this time, an undercover agent named Tamer offered to help Abassi travel to Canada to reunite with his wife and offered his family financial assistance in the form of an $800 wire transfer, a defense sentencing brief states.
In March 2013, Abassi lied to immigration officials in order to make his way to New York, where Tamer - posing as a real estate agent - had offered him an apartment.
Once in New York, Abassi was under extensive surveillance, and Tamer repeatedly prodded him to join Esseghaier's alleged plot to derail a passenger train to Canada.
Months later, and to great fanfare, prosecutors accused Abassi of illegally entering the United States "in order to facilitate an act of international terrorism." Prosecutors said he wanted to develop a network of terrorists and poison the water system to kill thousands of people.
His alleged co-conspirators in the train plot, Esseghaier, and the Palestinian-born Raed Jasser, were arrested and charged in Toronto. Their cases are pending in Canada.
The details of Abassi's conversations with the government informant were revealed in dueling sentencing briefs from prosecutors and defense attorneys.
In the government's brief, U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara acknowledged that Abassi "flatly and repeatedly" rebuffed Esseghaier, the alleged ringleader of the plot.
"In fact, Esseghaier became so frustrated by Abassi's refusal to undertake a terrorist attack in the near term that Esseghaier urged the UC to throw Abassi out of the UC's apartment," the brief states, referring to the undercover agent.
Indeed, Abassi told Esseghaier to "focus on his Ph.D. and get an education and not bother with jihad," the defense brief states.
While Ferrara's brief does not allege that Abassi had any specific long-term plot, it states that the recordings with the undercover agent revealed "dangerous, extremist views" that indicated that Abassi refused to participate for the "wrong reasons."
"For example, Abassi described 50 or 100 casualties as 'something light,'" the brief states. "Later in the conversation, Abassi said he had 'a principle, the principle that America should be wiped off the face of the Earth.' However, Abassi made clear he had no current plan for attacking the United States."
According to the defense brief, such comments were the bluster of "a young man placed in a desperate position by the U.S. and Canadian governments who said things to please the undercover agent, Ahmed's sole means of support and hope to return to Canada."
Tamer provided Abassi "a beautiful skyscraper in Manhattan near the Ritz Carlton hotel" as well as "food, transportation, and, of course, an imaginary lawyer to help Ahmed address his problems with his Canadian visa," the brief states.
Another of those perks, a trip to Las Vegas, is another source of contention between the parties.
Although Tamer spent "thousands of dollars and thousands of hours" on a trip to snare Abassi into terrorism recruitment, "Nothing happens," according to the defense brief.
Prosecutors say, however, that Abassi boasted that he and Tamer would send "up to $1 million" to the Nusrah Front in Syria and ideologically defended targeting civilians during a dinner in conversations a would-be recruit.
After this trip, Abassi was arrested at JFK airport after questioning in which he misled officials about Esseghaier and his alleged plot.
Abbasi's life has been "completely ruined" by his arrest, and his elderly parents "nearly died from shock" as a "media frenzy" affected the entire family, the defense brief states.
Defense attorney Shroff has long argued that the government entrapped her client into breaking the law, and she wrote in her sentencing brief that Tamer was "largely responsible" for goading Abassi's radical views.
For several years, prominent universities and civil rights groups have studied what they allege to be government-devised terrorism cases.
"More importantly, it should be equally clear that we, as a country, do not jail people for having thoughts - bad thoughts, vile thoughts, racist thoughts or prurient thoughts," Shroff wrote. "Thoughts are not crimes and we do not punish people for having them. This should be particularly true when the thoughts are the product of governmental conduct."
Shroff repeated that sentiment at a makeshift press conference outside the courtroom.
"It is disappointing to us that he spent 15 months in prison for doing nothing more than being stupid and opinionated," she said.