DUBLIN (AP) — An Algerian-born terror suspect wanted in the United States walked free from a Dublin court Thursday after five years behind bars and a two-year legal battle against extradition.
U.S. authorities had sought to convict Ali Charaf Damache, 50, on two counts of conspiring to develop a European terror cell and to aid Pakistan-based terrorists. He had been held without bail in Ireland since March 2010 but walked free from Dublin High Court after Justice Aileen Donnelly delivered a 333-page judgment that criticized Irish prosecutors and potentially cruel U.S. prison conditions.
Donnelly cited what she called "substantial grounds for believing that Mr. Damache will be at real risk of being subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment if extradited to the USA."
She also ruled that Irish state prosecutors abdicated their responsibilities in 2011 when they ruled out the possibility of trying Damache for additional terror charges in Ireland, where he actually lived, rather than the United States, which he had never visited. Prosecutors took that decision, in part, to ease Damache's extradition — but instead it inspired two successful appeals by Damache's legal team challenging the fairness of his case's handling.
Damache, who has lived in Ireland for 15 years and has Irish citizenship, said in a statement issued by his legal team: "I am very happy with today's ruling, I always had faith in the Irish legal system ... and after more than five years in jail I am looking forward to moving on with my life here."
He had been jailed in Ireland since U.S. investigators tied him to a failed 2009 conspiracy to kill Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who had drawn jihadis' ire with sketches depicting the prophet Muhammad as a dog.
According to FBI affidavits and other evidence presented in U.S. and Irish courts, Damache was the ringleader who recruited white American women to his cause using online chat rooms. He allegedly wanted to build a European terror cell with Western female members who, because of their appearance and background, could avoid being added to terrorist watch lists. Damache also was accused of conspiring to supply a U.S. passport stolen in Ireland for use by an al-Qaida member in Pakistan, possibly delivered by one of his alleged American followers.
One of his alleged recruits, Colleen "Jihad Jane" LaRose, was arrested by the FBI in Philadelphia soon after she returned from Ireland in September 2009. LaRose, 51, is serving a 10-year sentence for conspiracy to murder and aiding terrorists.
Damache married another alleged online recruit, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, on the first day she arrived in Ireland from her hometown of Leadville, Colorado, accompanied by her 6-year-old son. Paulin-Ramirez, 35, is serving an 8-year sentence after being arrested in March 2010 in Ireland alongside Damache, agreeing to return to the United States, and pleading guilty in 2014 to providing material support to terrorists.
Damache served a 3-year sentence in Ireland after his 2010 arrest, because he belatedly pleaded guilty to an unrelated charge of making a telephoned death threat to a Michigan-based Muslim critic of jihadis. Irish police bearing a U.S. extradition warrant arrested him outside an Irish courthouse in February 2013 minutes after Damache had pleaded guilty to that charge and been freed because he had already spent three years behind bars fighting the charge and awaiting a verdict.
U.S. and Irish authorities at the time said they expected swift extradition, but Damache successfully appealed to Ireland's Supreme Court in hopes of having any further criminal charges handled in Ireland, rather than the United States, where prison terms for terror offenses are much more severe.
The High Court judge, Donnelly, agreed with the Supreme Court's 2014 criticisms of the Irish prosecutors' 2011 decision to relent on any further Irish charges.
And Donnelly found persuasive the defense's contention that Damache, if extradited, could be housed in the ADX super-maximum-security prison near Florence, Colorado, featuring a regime of solitary confinement for prisoners deemed exceptionally dangerous. She said conditions in that prison, nicknamed the "Alcatraz of the Rockies," did not meet Irish constitutional standards for the treatment of imprisoned Irish citizens.