Babar Ahmad has been sentenced to 12 and a half years in prison by a US court but could be free within a year because of time already served.
The British computer expert had admitted supporting terrorism through the internet in an apparent plea bargain. He also admitted conspiracy and providing material to support the Taliban.
Ahmad has already spent almost 10 years in prison in the UK and US (most of it without charge or trial) and his lawyer thinks he could be released in about seven-and-a-half months. He waived his right to an appeal as part of a plea agreement.
Sentencing Ahmad, the judge said she had to weigh the seriousness of the crime with his good character, after reading thousands of letters of support and hearing from British prison officials who described him as an exemplary prisoner.
She said Ahmad was not an operational terrorist, showed he posed no threat to the public and exhibited remorse for setting up websites that promoted jihad.
The judge said she was struck by the impact the Bosnia War had had on him, where he had gone as an 18-year-old and saw the suffering of Muslims, after which he committed to jihad.
The court in New Haven, Connecticut, handed down a sentence of 150 months, half of the 25 years the prosecution was seeking.
Ahmad is expected to carry out the remainder of his sentence in New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center.
Babar Ahmad has spent a decade fighting his case – and the judge’s relatively lenient sentence – half what prosecutors sought – reflects its complexity.
He and others ran an undeniably influential online operation propagating armed jihadist ideology from the late 1990s; their beliefs born on the battlefields of Bosnia, where Ahmad and others went to protect Muslim civilians from massacre.
His mistake, as he now admits, was to translate that into support for the Taliban as 9/11 approached.
Ahmad, who spent a decade fighting against conviction, was accused of being the mastermind behind the world’s first English website dedicated to jihad. He had thousands of supporters in the UK during his record eight-year battle against extradition.
He was accused of operating the now defunct Azzam.com family of websites, established to spread jihad in 1996. The websites published reports of mujahedeen battles in Bosnia and Chechnya, and called for support for the Taliban.
Later, they also published documents setting out Osama bin Laden’s call for a holy war against the West. The US authorities said his online activities had an almost unprecedented global reach and that he sent recruits to train with the Taliban.
Ahmad was never charged with an offence in the UK, despite his network operating in London.
Ahmad, 40, has admitted he ran the sites and said he made a grave error as a young man in going on to support the Taliban, but he denied that his interpretation of jihad for self-defence had developed into support for al-Qaeda inspired terrorist attacks.
A statement posted on the Free Babar Ahmad Facebook page said the campaign was “finally coming to the end of a very long journey”. It added: “It has been a very difficult and tiresome struggle but at last, we can see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Responding to the verdicts of Babar Ahmed and Talha Ahsan (his co-accused who is now free) the Islamic Human Rights Commision said: “The sentencing today of Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan by a US court after they pleaded guilty under plea bargain agreements to charges of terrorism is a damning indictment of the British justice system, its subservience to American interests and its differential treatment of Muslim suspects.
“In return for a reduced sentence totalling twelve and a half years imprisonment the pair accepted guilt for running the Azzam.com website, as a fundraising and recruiting vehicle for the Taliban which was resisting the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. Talha Ahsan was sentenced to time already served of about 10 years and released into the custody of US immigration officials pending possible deportation.
“Ahmad was indicted on the flimsy basis that one of the servers used by the offending website was located in Connecticut, allowing US prosecutors to claim that an offence had been committed on US soil. His extradition was only sought by the US in 2004 after prosecuting authorities in Britain decided there was insufficient evidence to charge him with any offences under British law.
“Ahmad was violently beaten by police during his arrest and in 2009 won £60,000 in compensation after London’s Metropolitan Police admitted subjecting him to a ‘serious, gratuitous, and prolonged attack.’
“The allegations of terrorism against Ahsan were even more tenuous and revolved around him processing orders for videos that promoted jihad for Azzam.com. When Ahsan was extradited to the US together with Ahmad in October 2012, critics accused the government of discrimination in not refusing the extradition request on the grounds that he suffers from Asperger Syndrome, the same medical condition which prompted the Home Secretary Theresa May to block the extradition of computer hacking suspect Gary Mckinnon less than two weeks later.
“Until agreeing to the plea bargains the pair had always maintained their innocence and insisted that they be tried by a British court. It is evident that they only accepted the plea bargains because of the impossibility of receiving a fair trial in the United States and the expectation that the time already served in custody would be included in their sentences – indeed Ahmad’s eight-years’ incarceration in the UK is the longest any British suspect has been held without trial in the UK in modern history.
“The plea bargain also opens the door for Ahmad to serve the sentence in the UK nearer to his loved ones in a prison regime far more humane than the heavily-criticised ‘supermax’ prisons he faces in the US.
“IHRC believes that the cases highlight how the prosecution of disproportionately large number of Muslims is being outsourced to Washington under the controversial Extradition Act which allows for British citizens to be extradited to the US without any prima facie evidence of their guilt being presented. Their number include Abu Hamza al-Masri, Adel Abdel Bari and Khaled al-Fawwaz who had himself spent 14 years in a British jail without trial awaiting extradition.”