As Sentencing in the Lackawanna 6 Case Begins, A U.S. Court Rejects Law That Criminalizes Unknowingly Supporting a Terrorist Organization

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The federal law that criminalizes providing “material support” to terrorist organizations was in the spotlight yesterday. In Buffalo, sentencing began for six Yemeni-American men, known as the “Lackawanna Six,” who traveled to Afghanistan before 9/11 and attended an Al Qaeda training camp. In San Francisco, a federal court ruled parts of the law unconstitutional. We talk to attorney David Cole.

A federal judge yesterday sentenced a Yemeni American to 10 years in prison for supporting a terrorist organization. Mukhtar al-Bakri is the first of the so-called “Lackawanna Six” members to be sentenced after pleading guilty earlier this year to providing material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization — a charge carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and $250,000 fine.

All six have admitted to the FBI and intelligence officials that in 2001 they traveled to Afghanistan, received training at a camp run by the Al Qaeda terrorist network and heard speeches by Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden.

A lawyer for one of the men said they pleaded guilty only after prosecutors had dropped heavy hints that they would be declared 'enemy combatants' if they didn’t. “It was a factor my client took into account. He was worried about it,” he said. Enemy combatant status places a detainee outside of the civilian justice system where access to legal counsel can be waived.

The other five defendants in the case are scheduled to be sentenced this month.

The prosecution has been hailed as a triumph for law enforcement by President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller, but critics call it an example of America putting people in jail for “thought crimes” and “guilt by association.” None of the six have been accused of planning or engaging in any act of terrorism.

This comes as the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit rules part of the law the men are being charged under unconstitutional.

  • David Cole, professor at Georgetown Law School and author of the book Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedom in the War on Terrorism.

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