MANHATTAN (CN) – Though he expressed regret to the victims of al-Qaida’s terrorist attacks, a man described as Osama “bin Laden’s man in London” will face life behind bars after failing to convince the court Friday he is a man of peace.
The sentencing of Saudi-born Khalid al-Fawwaz closes the docket on men held in U.S. custody for al-Qaida’s bombings of two U.S. Embassies in East Africa in 1998. The attacks killed 224 people and injured thousands of others.
With victims of the bombings filling the pews beside rows of federal agents and the press Friday morning, three of their representatives urged a heavy sentence for al-Fawwaz.
“Al-Fawwaz, you are a travesty to the human race,” their spokeswoman Edith Bartley told the defendant at the beginning of her speech.
The next victim to speak, Ellen Karas from Texas, made her way to the podium with the help of her seeing-eye dog.
Karas, who was medevaced out of Nairobi on the day of the bombing, said she never regained her vision despite 34 eye surgeries performed on her at Walter Reade military hospital. She called outliving bin Laden a silver lining.
“We are here,” she said. “He is gone.”
While al-Fawwaz played no direct role in the Embassy bombings themselves, a federal jury found that his dissemination of al-Qaida’s declaration of war against the United States helped foment the violence the group unleashed.
As Friday’s hearing stretched more than an hour, it became clear that the victims and the judge agreed.
Al-Fawwaz, for his part, turned to the victims and insisted that violence was never his aim.
“I can’t find words to describe how terribly sad and sorry I am,” the defendant told the victims seated in the gallery.
Al-Fawwaz’s attorneys claim that their client first met bin Laden on the battlefields of Afghanistan at a time when Islamic radicals had helped the United States repel a common Soviet enemy.
Throughout trial, al-Fawwaz insisted that he never shared bin Laden’s violent ideology toward the United States, and he portrayed himself as a peaceful Saudi dissident.
Continuing to insist that he did “not support violence,” al-Fawwaz added: “My goal was reform not revolution.”
“I hope that one day people will find some way to deal with their differences in a way other than violence,” he concluded.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean Buckley said al-Fawwaz’s speech showed only that he is “unrepentant.”
“There’s no confusion as to what Osama bin Laden and Khalid al-Fawwaz meant by jihad in that … declaration [of war],” Buckley said, referring at one point to a passage about “spearheads stained with blood.”
Al-Fawwaz’s attorney Bobbi Stearnheim never wavered from the position that her client was not the extremist that prosecutors portrayed. She urged for a “just and appropriate sentence” that would allow her client to spend some of the remainder of his life as a free man.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan quickly dispatched with what he called a “very spirited effort to portray [al-Fawwaz] as a man who abhors violence.”
“I accept the jury’s verdict in this case,” Kaplan said.
At one point of the trial, the jury heard al-Fawwaz tell an al-Qaida leader that the worst reaction to the group’s declaration of war would be if nobody paid attention to it.
Kaplan said that this was because al-Qaida’s goal was to “instill terror in the people of this country.”
“That was bin Laden’s program,” he said. “You were all in on that program, and it’s obvious to me.”
Nor did Kaplan believe that al-Fawwaz associated with bin Laden to bring attention to a Saudi dissident group known as the Advice and Reform Committee (ARC).
Referring to this organization, Kaplan said: “It was a Trojan horse. Its seemingly benign exterior concealed what lay behind the facade.”
Kaplan said he would recommend that the Bureau of Prisons lock up al-Fawwaz in the United States for the rest of his life and reject any request to transfer him to the United Kingdom to serve any of that time.
Before his trial, al-Fawwaz spent more than a decade fighting his extradition to the United States by alleging at the European Court of Human Rights that he would be mistreated here at supermax prisons with a reputation of solitary confinement. The judge made no recommendation as to where al-Fawwaz will serve his sentence.
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