In a case that riveted Chicago’s Muslim community, a Bridgeview businessman accused of aiding terrorists was sentenced Wednesday to 21 months in prison for lying in a civil lawsuit.
Muhammad Salah, 54, spoke out afterward against the sentence as he tried to comfort his 6-year-old daughter, Sumayya, who had burst into tears when the prison term was announced.
“It’s unfair,” Salah said in a courtroom hallway. “It’s just politics. … You can’t destroy a family just to please a bunch of zealots.”
Salah, a U.S. citizen, had won a key victory in February when a federal jury acquitted him of conspiring to support Hamas extremists and found him guilty on a less serious charge of obstruction of justice.
But federal prosecutors argued that Salah’s lies — about his role in Hamas and, later, they said, about alleged torture by Israeli agents — deserved a 10-year prison term.
U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve refused to accept the prosecutors’ arguments, but neither would she spare Salah from prison. “Lying to a court is always serious,” St. Eve said.
St. Eve also sentenced Salah to 100 hours of community service and ordered him to pay a $25,000 fine.
Salah may appeal, said his attorney, Michael Deutsch. He said that if the sentence stands, Salah would likely serve about 17 months, after deducting time served and time off for good behavior.
Salah is to report to prison Oct. 11.
Afterward, Salah’s eyes welled with tears as he thanked dozens of supporters who packed the courtroom. His backers — including family, friends and many area college students — sent a staggering 650 letters to the court on his behalf. St. Eve said it was the most she had ever seen.
Supporters arranged a bus ride to the courthouse for the hearing.
Federal prosecutors declined to comment Wednesday. But throughout the 3-year prosecution, they have scoffed at Salah’s portrayal of himself as a peaceful man, persecuted for his politics and Palestinian roots.
“It is necessary to send Mr. Salah to prison,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph Ferguson argued Wednesday in court. “I don’t think he’s been punished enough because he’s still lying — and he still hasn’t admitted the crimes he’s committed.”
Prosecutors charged Salah and two co-defendants in 2004 with being top leaders in the Palestinian extremist group Hamas and engaging in a long-running conspiracy to funnel millions of dollars to support Mideast terrorism. Salah was arrested in Israel in 1993 and spent nearly five years in prison there on similar charges.
The indictment also charged that Salah lied under oath in written answers he gave in a civil suit filed by the family of David Boim, an American student killed in a Hamas shooting. In 2004, a federal jury awarded Boim’s parents $156 million after finding that Salah provided support to Hamas.
“I think the fact that he’s going to jail provides some justice for the Boim family,” Steve Landes, attorney for the Boims, said Wednesday. “For society at large, it’s an important victory for those of us seeking justice for victims of international terrorism.”
Sentiments in the Muslim community could not be more different, Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Chicago, said Wednesday.
The community viewed Salah as “a trustworthy person caught in a political drama at a time when it’s difficult to be a Palestinian or a Muslim,” Rehab said. “The feeling is this could happen to anyone.”
The Salah matter has resounded like no other local court case, Rehab said. It compares to the case of Sami Al-Arian, a Florida professor whose terrorism trial ended in a hung jury on many counts, but who later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was ordered deported from the U.S.
In court, Deutsch asked St. Eve to consider what message a prison sentence would send to Muslim-Americans who wonder if they can expect justice in U.S. courts.
St. Eve acknowledged Salah’s extraordinary support. And she rejected several prosecution theories that would have enhanced Salah’s sentence, such as the claims that his lies in the civil case promoted terrorism.
But St. Eve said Salah had obstructed justice in the Boim case and lied again when he submitted an affidavit in her court making wide-ranging allegations that Israeli agents tortured him.
“The message to the community is that you cannot lie in a court of law,” St. Eve told Deutsch.
Even the jurors who acquitted Salah on terrorism charges disbelieved Salah’s version of his 1993 interrogation, St. Eve said. “I talked to the jury afterward,” St. Eve said. “They believed the [Israeli] agents.”
The jurors acquitted Salah of the terrorism charge because they believed he had withdrawn from Hamas activities long ago and was no longer part of any conspiracy, St. Eve said.
Afterward, Deutsch questioned St. Eve’s view of the jury, saying he talked to jurors who had believed Salah’s account.
As in the past, Salah didn’t speak on the subject of Hamas. At a hearing last year, Salah submitted an affidavit about alleged Israeli torture, but didn’t testify in court.
In a short statement to the court Wednesday, Salah also didn’t address the subject. Standing before St. Eve in a short-sleeve plaid shirt, with his glasses pushed up on his forehead, he said that despite his legal battles, he was proud to be a U.S. citizen and considered himself “a patriot.”
Despite the prison term, the Salah case can’t be called a win for the government, said Steven A. Miller, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago.
“They charged someone with being a terrorist,” Miller said. “The disparity between the accusation and the outcome is self-evident.”
Copyright © 2007 Chicago Tribune