June 22, 2004 – A US District judge blamed mandatory federal guidelines for the "appalling" sentences she herself handed down last week to two Muslim men, stating that one sentence in particular "stuck in [her] craw." One of the men was sentenced to life in prison and the other to 85 years.
Masoud Khan and Seifullah Chapman were two of eleven men originally charged with participating in paramilitary training to engage in "holy war" abroad. Six of the men pled guilty to some of the charges, two were acquitted, and three -- including Khan and Chapman -- were convicted by Judge Leonie M. Brinkema in March.
None of the men was charged with killing or attempting to target American civilians, or planning attacks against the United States. The harsh sentences for Khan and Chapman led to widespread criticism from the American Muslim community.
"It is the near universal perception in the Islamic community that these men would never have been charged had they not been Muslims, and that once convicted, prosecutors would never have sought such draconian sentences," said a press statement from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an Islamic civil liberties group, with 28 offices and chapters in the US and Canada. One of the men who plead guilty, Ismail Randall, formerly worked with CAIR.
According to court records, Khan, 32, and Chapman, 31, who received sentences of life and 85 years respectively, were convicted of conspiracy and weapons charges, largely in connection with military training they received in Pakistan with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), a militant Muslim group committed to driving India out of Kashmir.
The government confirmed Chapmanâ€™s assertion that he left LET immediately after the September 11 attacks, which led Brinkema to dismiss the governmentâ€™s most serious charge: that Chapman planned to fight against US troops in Afghanistan.
But Chapman and Kahn were both convicted of providing Wireless Video Camera equipment to an LET official in England in 2002. The State Department had declared LET a terrorist organization in December 2001.
Chapmanâ€™s contact with the LET official, combined with the weapons used while training in Pakistan and Chapmanâ€™s possession of Saiga .308 assault rifle, allowed prosecutors to seek (and the judge to grant) what the Washington Post described as a "sentencing enhancement" for supporting terrorist activities. The weapons charges brought mandatory minimum sentences and apparently forced the courtâ€™s hand.
"What Mr. Chapman has been found guilty of is a serious crime, but there are murderers who have served far less time," noted Judge Brinkema, the Post reports.
A third defendant, Hammad Abdur-Raheen, 32, was given an 8-year sentence.
CAIR pointed out the contrast between the sentences of Kahn and Chapman and that of Robert Goldstein, a non-Muslim who was sentenced to just under thirteen years in prison for plotting to bomb up to 50 Islamic institutions in Florida. They also point to the case of Erik Nix, another non-Muslim who received two years probation and was required to attend anger management classes after he blew up a van belonging to a Muslim family in Chicago.
"Under the current administration, we are quickly approaching a state of affairs in which there is a two-tier prosecutorial system in America; one system for Muslims, and one for all other Americans," wrote CAIR about the Kahn and Chapman sentences.
The case began in January 2000 when the FBI questioned Chapman about his activities and association with a private paintball club in the woods of Northern Virginia. The government charged that the group used the game for "jihad training." Prosecutors alleged that many of the men in the club were sympathetic to Chechnyaâ€™s fight for independence and used paintball practice to train for armed struggle against countries that are engaged in armed conflict with Muslim groups, such as Russia and India.
During the trial, the government alleged that Kahn returned to Pakistan after September 11, expressing his own desire to travel to Afghanistan for the pending war. While Kahn said he was in Pakistan on family business, a claim backed by legal documents and affirmed in court by his mother, his attendance at the LET camp in Islamabad during his visit, prompted the government to conclude that family business was not the primary reason for his trip. Though he never fought with the Taliban or other armed group against the United States, Kahnâ€™s post-September 11 activities with LET resulted in his conviction for seeking to levy war against the United States.