A Hamas supporter who refused to tell a federal grand jury what he knew about the terrorist group's activities in the U.S. will serve his full 11-year prison sentence for contempt of court and obstruction of justice, an appellate court ruled Friday.
The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected all claims by Abdelhaleem Ashqar that a federal judge improperly added a "terrorism enhancement" to his sentence in November 2007.
Ashqar argued that the judge should not have considered evidence about his Hamas support because jurors acquitted him of racketeering in his trial. But the opinion from Judge Diane P. Wood dismissed that:
"This argument fundamentally misunderstands the meaning of an acquittal. The jury found not that Ashqar was innocent, but that a reasonable doubt existed about his guilt. Because the district court found Ashqar's intent by a preponderance of the evidence, its finding does not contradict the jury's verdict. Sentencing courts routinely rely on acquitted conduct to increase a defendant's sentence, and this reliance does not violate the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial."
During his sentencing hearing, Ashqar acknowledged that his refusal to answer grand jury questions, despite a grant of immunity, stemmed from his desire to stay loyal:
"I don't want to become a traitor or collaborator. I don't want to turn against my people."
His appeal also argued that the government had not sufficiently proved his contempt was part of an attempt to promote a terror-related crime. The 7th Circuit rejected that, too:
"Promoting a crime includes helping and encouraging that crime, and one way of furthering a crime is to try to prevent the government from finding out about it."
Ashqar's cause was championed by a number of Islamist groups in America. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)-Chicago blasted the sentence as "excessive" and "politically-motivated." Then-Muslim American Society President Esam Omeish wrote to Judge St. Eve before the sentencing to urge leniency:
"Never at any time did I sense a radical tone and an extremist agenda in his words or actions. He has never and from what I saw can never aide or abet any terrorist or help finance any act of terror, simply because he does not believe in violence and extremism as a way to voice disenfranchisement or disagreement."
Fellow defendant Mohammed Salah, an acknowledged Hamas member, also was acquitted of racketeering. He was sentenced to 22 months in prison after being convicted of lying in a civil suit concerning Hamas support.