By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) - A Texas businessman convicted of plotting to violate the U.S. Neutrality Act in a failed 2014 bid to overthrow the government of Gambia and install himself as president of the tiny African nation was sentenced on Thursday to a year in prison.
Two other U.S. citizens of Gambian descent who pleaded guilty with the coup plot leader, Cherno Njie, 58, received six-month prison terms, and a third was sentenced to time already served, federal prosecutors said.
The below-guideline sentences, more lenient than those recommended by federal prosecutors, were handed down by U.S. District Judge Richard Kyle in Minnesota, where the case originated.
Ben Petok, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for Minnesota, declined to comment on the rationale for the relatively light punishment leveled against the four men.
But prosecutors' sentencing memoranda stated the defendants "were motivated by a fervent desire to overthrow a regime (they) believed to be inhumane and oppressive," noting the U.S. government "has long been critical" of Gambia's human rights record.
The previous U.S. military service of Njie's co-conspirators - Papa Faal, 47, of Minnesota, Alagie Barrow, 43, of Tennessee, and Banke Manneh, 43, of Georgia - also were factors in their sentencing, Petok said. Faal, who saw combat in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, received the lightest sentence.
Nevertheless, the four men "violated U.S. laws that exist to protect the foreign policy of our country and all Americans both at home and abroad," U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger said.
The current leader of Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh, seized power in a coup 20 years ago and wields tight control over the impoverished West African country of 1.8 million people.
Njie, a Texas housing developer, was the mastermind and chief financial backer of plotters who attacked the presidential palace on Dec. 30, 2014, hoping to topple Jammeh's government while he was out of the country. They had planned to install Njie as interim president, court documents say.
According to court records, the coup bid failed when palace guards opened fire on the attackers, killing three of them, and the remaining raiders fled. Njie and Faal escaped to neighboring Senegal before returning to the United States.
Each of the four men pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Neutrality Act and a firearms conspiracy offense stemming from attempts to smuggle weapons to Gambia.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bernard Orr)