RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A former Russian military tank commander who was convicted of leading an attack on U.S. forces in Afghanistan was sentenced Thursday to life in prison.
Before the judge handed down his sentence, Irek Hamidullin railed against the U.S presence in Afghanistan and accused the government of targeting him in order to send a message to the Russians.
"You accuse me of terrorism. That is a lie. I am doing what Jesus Christ told us to do," said Hamidullin, who appeared pale and thin as he was brought into the federal court in Richmond in a wheelchair. Hamidullin has said he's on a hunger strike, but hasn't been refusing food completely, a deputy U.S. marshal told The Associated Press last month.
The 55-year-old spoke in Russian through a translator and became animated at times, pointing at the judge and slamming his hands on the table throughout a rambling, 15-minute speech before the court.
"I do not acknowledge your law. I do not acknowledge this court. I despise it," he said.
A federal jury in August found Hamidullin guilty of all 15 counts of terror-related charges, including providing material support to terrorism, attempting to destroy U.S. aircraft and conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction.
His attorneys said Thursday that they plan to appeal.
Unlike the hundreds of other cases involving terror suspects in the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Hamidullin was a combatant captured on the battlefield, not a financier, recruiter or schemer arrested outside the theater of war.
That raised questions about whether he should be considered a prisoner of war, and prosecuted by a military tribunal instead of a civilian court.
The judge ultimately allowed the case to move forward, arguing that that Hamidullin wasn't a lawful combatant because the Taliban and its affiliated groups lack a clearly defined command structure and don't adhere to the laws and customs of war.
Prosecutors had asked the judge to impose a life sentence, citing the need to protect the public.
Hamidullin told FBI agents that as long as Americans forces remained in Afghanistan, "if he met them or other Americans on the street, he would be obligated by his religion to kill them," prosecutors said in court documents.
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Gillis told the judge he believed the harshest sentence could also potentially deter future attacks by terrorist groups.
"American justice came swiftly in this case and the world watched this," Gillis said.
Hamidullin's attorneys argued for a 30-year-term with supervised release, which they called a "defacto life sentence" for the man. They noted that Hamidullin cooperated with investigators and didn't target civilians or kill any American troops. They also argued that he didn't commit an act of terrorism, but a "lawful act of war."
Defense attorney Paul Gill dismissed the notion that a life sentence would serve as deterrence, saying that Taliban attacks in Afghanistan have continued, and perhaps even intensified, since Hamidullin was captured and prosecuted.
"This person's prosecution has done nothing to the Taliban's resolve," he said.
Hamidullin is a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan who stayed in the country and joined the Haqqani Network, a Taliban-affiliated militant group, U.S. officials said.
He allegedly led three groups of insurgents in a 2009 attack on Afghan border police in Khost province. When U.S. helicopters responded to the attack, the insurgents tried to fire at them with anti-aircraft weapons, which malfunctioned, prosecutors say. The insurgents were virtually wiped out, while the coalition forces sustained no casualties.
This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Khost province.
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