By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - An Albanian man was sentenced on Thursday to 16 years in U.S. prison for aiding a Pakistani militant group, clearing the way for a federal appeals court to hear a rare challenge to the U.S. government's controversial warrantless wiretapping program.
Agron Hasbajrami, 31, is one of five defendants to have received notice from the U.S. Department of Justice last year that evidence against them was gathered through the surveillance program.
The program was authorized under a 2008 law that allows government agencies to sweep up communications between U.S. residents and foreign citizens living abroad who are intelligence targets.
Civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have argued that the government should be required to obtain warrants to examine any communications gathered from Americans.
Lawyers for Hasbajrami are expected to make that argument to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.
Another case is on appeal at the 9th Circuit in San Francisco. In that case, Mohamed Mohamud, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for trying to blow up a Christmas tree lighting celebration in Oregon in 2010.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a challenge to the law brought by the ACLU and other groups, finding they did not have standing to sue because they had not been specifically harmed.
Hasbajrami pleaded guilty in 2012 and was sentenced to 15 years. But U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn permitted him to withdraw his plea after Hasbajrami learned that the key evidence in his case had been collected without a warrant.
After Gleeson denied his bid to suppress the evidence, however, Hasbajrami again pleaded guilty.
Prosecutors asked Gleeson to impose a 20-year sentence this time, saying they had decided upon reflection that the initial deal was too generous.
But Gleeson, who had criticized the original plea bargain as too lenient, said it would be wrong to punish Hasbajrami for exercising his rights.
"I just don't think it's fair," he said.
Gleeson did, however, add a year to the sentence after finding that Hasbajrami had lied in a letter to the court claiming misconduct on the part of his lawyers.
Acting Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Kelly Currie said in a statement that the sentence ensured "he will no longer pose a threat to the United States and our allies."
Joshua Dratel, a lawyer for Hasbajrami, said they were looking forward to litigating the surveillance issue on appeal.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax, editing by G Crosse)