Heathrow Airport plot central to terror case sentencing

AP News
|
Posted: May 16, 2016 6:10 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — A judge said Monday she's inclined to believe the U.S. government when it says a Vietnamese man plotted to carry out a suicide bombing of London's Heathrow Airport.

The statement by U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan in Manhattan forced a postponement of the sentencing of Minh Quang Pham as his defense attorney requested more time to decide how best to change the judge's mind. The sentencing had been scheduled for Monday.

Which way the judge leans could be pivotal in determining whether Pham serves closer to the minimum 30 years in prison he faces or the 50 years in prison requested by prosecutors.

Pham, 33, pleaded guilty in January to terrorism charges, admitting he provided material support in 2011 to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. The group has called on followers to attack civilians and has taken credit for coordinating attacks overseas, including the January 2015 Paris attack on the French publication Charlie Hebdo, which killed a dozen people.

Pham did not agree during his plea to government claims he plotted in 2011 to carry out a Heathrow attack, and no attack occurred.

But as Pham's sentencing hearing began, the judge told lawyers: "My inclination is to accept the government's version of the facts."

Pham's attorney, Bobbi Sternheim, said Pham had "been firm since the day I met him" that it was never his intention to commit violence. She has represented him since he was extradited to the United States from London in March 2015.

She said if he had planned to carry out the attack, he would have taken steps to do so in the nearly half-year from July 2011, when he returned to London from Yemen, to December 2011, when he was arrested. Sternheim said if he intended to bomb the airport his motivation would have been high after a U.S.-born al-Qaida leader, Anwar Al-Awlaki, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.

"It didn't happen," she said.

Prosecutors say Pham was directed by Al-Awlaki to detonate explosives made with household chemicals in the arrivals area at Heathrow. He was detained and questioned by authorities when he returned to England from Yemen, where he had received weapons training and worked on an al-Qaida publicity publication since arriving there weeks after leaving his 8-months-pregnant wife behind in December 2010. The government has said he lied to his family about his travel destination.

The judge said facts support the theory that Pham was careful after his return to London because he believed he was being watched by terrorism investigators.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Skotko cited evidence to support the government's claims, including statements he made to others that he was on track with his mission and that he wanted to be a martyr.

"Jihad was more important than family," she said.