A federal judge sentenced a Pakistani-born Chicago taxi driver on Friday to 7 1/2 years in prison for attempting to send money to a terrorist with alleged links to al-Qaida, telling the 58-year-old he had violated a citizenship oath made to God promising never to do harm to the United States.
Stepping before the judge in an orange jail jumpsuit and with his legs shackled before he was sentenced, Raja Lahrasib Khan unfolded a piece of crumpled paper and read a brief statement apologizing for seeking to send funds to Pakistan-based terrorist Ilyas Kashmiri.
"I made a bad decision. I did something for which I am ashamed," a somber, visibly distressed Khan told the courtroom in Chicago. "Your honor, I ask for your mercy."
Khan's wife wept on a spectators' bench as he spoke, and his son and daughter were sitting nearby. Several taxi drivers also attended the hearing to express support for their one-time co-worker.
Khan pleaded guilty in February to one count of attempting to provide material support to terrorism. His plea agreement recommended a relatively lenient five- to eight-year sentence _ well short of the 15-year maximum _ in a concession for Khan's willingness to cooperate with authorities.
Judge James Zagel mostly struck a calm, professorial tone in his remarks before imposing a sentence. But he grew angry as he began talking about the oath Khan took when he became a U.S. citizen in 1988, the grizzled judge noting he had administered that oath himself hundreds of times.
"He raised his hand and swore to God he would not act against this country's interests," Judge Zagel said about Khan. That he had violated that oath, Zagel said, was a "profoundly aggravating factor."
After Khan's arrest, authorities accused him of taking steps to send cash to Kashmiri after Kashmiri indicated he needed money for explosives. Khan believed Kashmiri was getting orders from Osama bin Laden, prosecutors said.
He sent $950 in 2009 to an individual in Pakistan for delivery to Kashmiri; he also took $1,000 from an undercover agent, allegedly believing that it would be used to buy weapons and possibly other supplies.
In his comments to the judge Friday, prosecutor Chris Veatch conceded the amounts of money involved weren't enormous, but he added terrorist groups rely on just such donations.
Any sentence, he said, should send a message that "you can't contribute to a terrorist organization in any amount." He told reporters later he thought the sentence Zagel imposed accomplished that.
The case hinged on secret recordings, including some made in Khan's taxicab. While he was never charged with a terrorist attempt, the original complaint said Khan talked about planting bags of bombs in an unspecified stadium.
"Put one bag here, one there, one there ... you know, boom, boom, boom, boom," Khan allegedly says in one wiretap.
Zagel acknowledged the many friends wrote letters portraying Khan as kind-hearted and altruistic.
That may well be true, but "unjudgmental altruism can lead to some very bad consequences," Zagel said. And the intention to send money to Kashmiri was "a kind of toxic altruism."
To drive that point home, Zagel invoked Jack the Ripper. Someone who gave money to the London serial killer may not have had any inkling he intended to buy a knife with which to commit murders, Zagel said. Khan, though, could claim no such naiveté when he decided to send money to Kashmiri.
"He knew Kashmiri's plan" was to use the money to terrorize, Zagel said.
Khan's attorney, Thomas Durkin, told Zagel during Friday's hearing that during Khan's two years in jail _ part of which he spent in solitary confinement _ his health worsened and he suffered depression. He said Khan even contemplated committing suicide at one point, which Durkin said demonstrated the depth of his remorse.
Asked earlier this year why Khan agreed to plead guilty, Durkin said finding jurors who could give his client a fair trial would have been a challenge.
"The word `al-Qaida' scares the bejesus out of people and that's all (jurors) have to hear," he said.
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