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Palestinian found in contempt gets 11 years

Chicago Tribune

A Palestinian activist was sentenced Wednesday to 11 years, 3 months in prison for refusing to testify before a grand jury about the activities of Hamas, a Palestinian militant group.

Abdelhaleem Ashqar, 49, a business professor who lives outside Washington, said in court that he should not be expected to aid the Israeli government in its battle with his fellow Palestinians. Ashqar said he refused “to live as a traitor or as a collaborator.”

But U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve told Ashqar that regardless of his political beliefs, he had an obligation to follow U.S. law. She said that once he was granted immunity, he could not refuse to testify before the grand jury.

“You have disregarded your legal obligation,” St. Eve told Ashqar. “In the 1 1/2 hours that you have spoken, I have not seen any remorse from you. I also have heard exactly the opposite.” As the judge spoke, Ashqar’s wife sobbed in the front row.

After Wednesday’s sentencing, St. Eve ordered Ashqar to be taken into immediate custody, agreeing with prosecutors who said he was a risk to flee. He had been confined to his Virginia home.

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Ashqar was eligible for the lengthy sentence because St. Eve found that his crimes aided terrorism by hampering a federal investigation into the activities of Hamas.

Federal prosecutors had accused Ashqar and Muhammad Salah, 53, a former Bridgeview, Ill., grocer, of being leading members of the Palestinian militant group and conspiring to support terrorism from the United States.

They were acquitted in February of the most serious terrorism-related charges but convicted of obstruction of justice. Ashqar also was convicted of criminal contempt.

Ashqar attorney William Moffitt said in court that he knew of no case in which a defendant had been sentenced to more than five years for refusing to testify before a grand jury.

Afterward, he called Ashqar’s sentence “far beyond the pale.” But U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald said the sentence was appropriate.

“No one -- whether they have a reason that’s political or otherwise -- has a right to go before a grand jury and obstruct justice,” Fitzgerald said.

“This is an obscene sentence,” said Michael E. Deutsch, an attorney for Salah, who was sentenced to 22 months in prison in July. Deutsch said five years was the most he had expected.


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