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Millennium plot jail term scrapped

The 9th Circuit again rules the sentence for Ahmed Ressam, who planned to bomb LAX, must be recalculated.

August 16, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

A federal appeals court Friday threw out the 22-year sentence imposed on Algerian Ahmed Ressam for plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on the eve of the millennium.

The three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to U.S. District Court in Seattle to recalculate a sentence for his conviction on nine felony counts. It was the second time the appellate court has scrapped Ressam's sentence.

The San Francisco-based panel noted that the U.S. Supreme Court reversal of its first decision to vacate the term failed to take into consideration recent federal sentencing guidelines on what constitutes a reasonable sentence outside the preset range for criminal offenses.

Ressam was arrested Dec. 14, 1999, at a ferry terminal in Port Angeles, Wash., after crossing from British Columbia, Canada, in a rented sedan with explosives in the trunk. He had been under surveillance by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for at least two years for known association with suspected Al Qaeda operatives.

After leaving his native Algeria in 1994 for France and eventually Canada, Ressam was recruited by Al Qaeda and trained in Afghanistan in the building of bombs and the use of weapons.

He was one of four militants identified as part of the plot to set off explosions at public venues during the New Year's Eve celebrations ushering in 2000.

Ressam, now 41, cooperated with interrogators after his 2001 conviction, providing federal authorities with key information on other Al Qaeda operatives, including alleged co-conspirators held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Testimony provided by Ressam reportedly provided the U.S. government with evidence to prosecute alleged Al Qaeda kingpin Abu Zubaydah. The information was not extracted from him by "enhanced interrogation techniques" such as waterboarding, which is criticized by human rights advocates and others as torture.

His 22-year sentence, including a 10-year minimum applied for carrying explosives during the commission of a felony, was imposed by District Judge John C. Coughenour in 2005. It was the middle ground between the 35 years requested by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the 12 1/2 years proposed by Ressam's federal public defenders.

Both prosecutors and defense lawyers appealed, leading to the 9th Circuit's initial ruling in January 2007 that the sentence should be vacated and recalculated because the sentencing guidelines requiring the aggravating multiplier were too open-ended.

The Supreme Court in May overruled the 9th Circuit, reinstating the full 22 years in an 8-1 ruling that the aggravating circumstance of carrying explosives was obviously related to Ressam's felonious action of trying to evade detection by U.S. Customs authorities by signing his immigration form with an alias.

Neither of the Seattle federal public defenders representing Ressam could be reached Friday, nor was the U.S. Attorney for Seattle available to comment on the panel's decision.

The panel ordered the sentence vacated and sent the case back to the Seattle district court for resentencing.

The order was signed by Circuit Judges Arthur L. Alarcon, Pamela Ann Rymer and Marsha S. Berzon, respective appointees of Presidents Carter, George H.W. Bush and Clinton.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

threw out the 22-year sentence imposed on Algerian Ahmed Ressamthrew out the 22-year sentence imposed on Algerian Ahmed Ressam

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