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Published: Thursday, 10/22/2009

3 in Toledo terror plot will serve up to 20 years

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Mohammad Amawi, 29, was sentenced to 20 years in prison; Marwan El-Hindi, 46, was sentenced to a total of 13 years behind bars; and Wassim Mazloum, 27, was sentenced to serve eight years and four months in prison for their 2008 convictions of terrorism-related crimes.

Mazloum, who is Lebanese, faces deportation.

With the sentences, Judge James Carr of U.S. District Court in Toledo spared the three men from possible life behind bars.

But the judge said the sentences would show those familiar with the facts of the case that the court takes the threat of terrorism seriously.

He ordered that the three be supervised upon their release from prison for the rest of their lives.

“This sentence sends the message that plotting, not even planning but plotting, can and will send you to prison if that is what you choose to engage in,” he said of Amawi's time in prison, a sentiment that he echoed after each sentence. “This is conduct that is unacceptable in our society and in any civilized country.”

A jury convicted the three men June 13, 2008, on two counts each of conspiring to kill or injure people — including U.S. troops — in the Middle East and of providing material support and resources to terrorists overseas.

Amawi and El-Hindi also were found guilty of two counts of distributing information regarding explosives.

During lengthy arguments, federal prosecutors urged the judge to sentence each man to life in prison. Reviewing evidence in the case as it pertained to each defendant, prosecutors highlighted words spoken by each of the men that showed their roles in the conspiracy.

They were convicted after 25 days of testimony and hundreds of exhibits, namely audio and video recordings by the government's cooperating witness, Darren Griffin, that spanned nearly two years. Mr. Griffin testified that he weaved his way into the Muslim community representing himself as a recent convert and radical, a job for which he said he was paid $56,000 a year by the FBI.

In their individual statements to the judge, each defendant denied his guilt.

El-Hindi spoke for about a half hour, saying although he is of Jordanian descent, he became an American citizen because he loved the United States.

Like Amawi in his statement to the judge Tuesday, El-Hindi disputed much of the government's evidence against him, saying “if it wasn't for Darren Griffin, none of this would have happened.”

“You said you wanted to send a message. I hope, and with no disrespect to your honor, you don't send a message to the people that there is no more freedom of speech in America,” he said. “… I love America. I love America and that's why I'm here.”

In a separate trial before Judge Carr earlier this year, El-Hindi was also found guilty of unrelated conspiracy and theft charges, an offense to which he was sentenced to 1 years in prison. That sentence was ordered consecutive to the 12 years he received for the terrorism case.

In that case, he was convicted of using federal grant money for personal use and was ordered yesterday to pay $20,000 in restitution.

After the sentencing Wednesday, defense attorney Charles Boss reiterated Judge Carr's statements that the case was unlike any other and therefore, there was no precedent in ordering sentences. He said what made the case unusual was the government's use of Mr. Griffin, to cast a line to see if anyone would bite.

“It has a foul smell to it but they were convicted,” he said, adding he was pleased that the judge crafted individual sentences for each of the men. “It sends a message out to the public not to listen to someone when they are spouting about these types of things.”

El-Hindi's brother and sister appeared in court to speak on his behalf and two of his seven children made statements through a video deposition. Each spoke of him as “kind-hearted” and emphasized his family-oriented background and his focus on raising his children.

After the sentence, his tearful siblings left without comment.

Attending Amawi's sentence was his younger brother, Amr, who also spoke on his brother's behalf. Speaking of Amawi's family life as one full of love and support, Amr Amawi admitted he was surprised by his brother's prison term.

“It's too long,” he said. “… Even here in Toledo, there are people who have killed people and who have less of a sentence. He didn't harm a person.”

Amawi's attorney, Edward Bryan, said after the sentence that the case was “complicated” and stressed the difference in culture and thoughts. He said that the desire to attain any sort of military-type training — which Mr. Griffin was offering — was “based on natural instinct and not based on a sinister plot.”

“This was a conspiracy that was … concocted and created by the government with the use of Darren Griffin,” he said. “… I don't doubt that the Jihadist movement captured my client's heart and mind but at every opportunity to do something, he backed away.”

Throughout the proceedings, government prosecutors stressed that with the conviction, the jury found that the three men were conspiring to “kill and maim” people overseas, including U.S. troops. Prosecutors urged Judge Carr not to consider when sentencing that the government stopped the terrorism from happening before it started.

“It is the object crime of this conspiracy that makes this such a serious case,” said Gregg Sofer of the U.S. Department of Justice. “… I believe that if this jury really believed that nothing was going to happen, then they would not have convicted the defendants.”

The government objected to each of the prison terms, saying that each of the sentences may be appealed.

During the two days of sentencing hearings, both the prosecutors and defense were able to present evidence and witnesses to the judge.

Although the advisory guidelines for the charges allowed for up to life in prison, Judge Carr had discretion in crafting a sentence.

The judge characterized the case as not one with a “capital T” but instead where there are more “discreet” actions. However, he pointed out that despite what brought the defendants to the government's attention, the jury found that each had “crossed the line.”

“The threat of terroristic acts is real,” he said. “I don't think anyone in this country can deny that, I don't think anyone in this world can deny that.”

Like his co-defendants, Mazloum said he was not willing to concede that he was guilty of the crimes. He said he never intended harm to anyone and then promised the judge that “I will never harm someone in the future.”

Painted by the government as the most eager of the group to learn how to train, Mazloum was a student at the University of Toledo when he was arrested. Attorney Jeffrey Helmick said that although Mazloum at one time expressed interest in the conspiracy, his lack of involvement for many months before his arrest showed he was drifting away from the others.

“The record supports that he was out of this, that he was back on the right track, that he was back in school,” Mr. Helmick said.

Although no family was presented as character witnesses, about 20 family members appeared in court late yesterday. Soon after Mazloum was led away in chains, his mother collapsed in the back of the courtroom sobbing, prompting court officials to call for emergency help.

Each man was given credit for time served in prison and is eligible for good time credit, which could shorten the sentences by more than a year.

Incarcerated since their arrest in February, 2006, Amawi and El-Hindi have already served three years and eight months in federal custody.

The men each have 10 days to file notices of appeal. Attorneys for each of the men said they intend to appeal.

Contact Erica Blake at:eblake@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.



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