By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the convictions and prison sentences of two Somali-born women from Minnesota over their roles in raising money for al Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliated group that the U.S. government has designated a foreign terrorist organization.
The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis rejected the argument by Amina Farah Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan that U.S. District Judge Michael Davis in Minneapolis should have recused himself from their trial after making statements that they said equated fundamentalist Islam with terrorism.
Ali, 39, and Hassan, 68, from Rochester, Minnesota, were convicted in October 2011 of conspiring to provide material support to al Shabaab, after claiming they were trying to raise funds to help the poor.
Ali was also convicted on 12 counts of providing such support, and is serving a 20-year prison term. Hassan was also convicted on two counts of lying to investigators, and is serving a 10-year term.
Federal prosecutors said the scheme included door-to-door solicitations in Somali-American communities in the Twin Cities area, and communications with Somalia-based al Shabaab members.
Writing for the appeals court, Circuit Judge Raymond Gruender said Davis' challenged statements, including during jury selection and the sentencings, did not reflect any "deep-seated favoritism or antagonism" to justify his recusal. He also rejected several other objections.
Sara Ann Zalkin, the defendants' lawyer, said they plan to ask the appeals court to reconsider the decision.
"The case presents several very compelling constitutional concerns that deserve further consideration," Zalkin said in an interview.
A separate federal investigation sought to halt a recruiting effort that lured about 20 Somali men from the Twin Cities area to fight for al Shabaab, which aims to overthrow Somalia's Western-backed government. The U.S. government designated al Shabaab a terrorist group in February 2008.
The case is U.S. v. Ali et al, 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Nos. 13-2208, 13-2209.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker)