SACRAMENTO -- A federal judge here Monday sentenced Hamid Hayat to 24 years in prison for attending a terrorism training camp in Pakistan, returning to the U.S. to commit violent jihad and then lying about it to the FBI.
U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell’s ruling comes more than two years after FBI agents arrested Hayat, spawning a case prosecutors say has helped discourage would-be terrorists but that Muslim activists call a gross injustice against an innocent man.
Hayat confessed to FBI agents during an exhaustive interrogation that he had attended a terrorist training camp, but his attorneys later argued that his admissions were fabrications intended to appease the federal agents he hoped would let him go home.
Jurors in his trial accepted prosecutors’ contention that the Muslim man, who was born in Stockton but spent his formative years in his family’s native Pakistan, had attended a training camp in 2003, came back to the United States to commit jihad and then lied to federal agents.
Hayat’s conviction in April 2006 came after a nine-week trial that hinged on the contested confession and secretly taped conversations with an FBI informant who had been paid $200,000 to infiltrate Lodi’s large Muslim community after the 9/11 attacks.
The sentencing hearing came on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the attacks and on Hayat’s 25th birthday. Dressed in a jail-issued orange jumpsuit and missing the beard he had worn during trial, Hayat displayed no emotion and did not speak, listening to the proceedings through an Urdu interpreter.
But his attorney, Wazhma Mojaddidi, told the court that Hayat, who has a seventh-grade education, “maintains his innocence stronger than ever” and that FBI agents played “psychological games” during the interrogation that “led him to say things that were untrue.”
U.S. Atty. McGregor Scott countered in a news conference after the sentencing that the case had been a just and necessary step in the nation’s war on terror.
Scott noted that the case resulted in the “dismantling” of a serious threat in Lodi, including the deportation of two Muslim imams with “radical backgrounds” who had set up shop in the sleepy Central Valley town best known for its zinfandel grapes.
The federal prosecutor also repeatedly alluded to 9/11, citing nearly two dozen countries that have had terrorist attacks in the intervening years.
“It is because of prosecutions like this that we have prevented another attack against the United States,” Scott said.
Hayat had faced a maximum term of 39 years behind bars; defense attorneys pleaded for the minimum sentence of 15. The judge essentially split the difference.
Burrell declared in court that the sentence was appropriate given the seriousness of Hayat’s crimes, as well as “the likelihood of recidivism and the unlikelihood of rehabilitation.”
Hayat’s attorneys immediately set in motion an appeal, arguing in part that Mojaddidi, in her first criminal case, did not adequately represent him.
His father, Umer, an ice cream truck driver, had also been charged with lying to the FBI about whether his son had attended a training camp. But a separate jury considering those charges deadlocked, and the judge declared a mistrial.
The government later dropped the terrorism charges against the father after he pleaded guilty to lying to customs officials about the amount of money he and his family were taking on a 2003 trip to Pakistan.
Outside the courthouse, Umer Hayat proclaimed his son’s innocence and expressed confidence that he would be freed on appeal, but said, “It is a very sad day for us.”
The elder Hayat criticized the judge, declaring that Burrell “did not serve justice.”
Basim Elkarra, regional executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called the trial and sentencing a gross injustice, saying Burrell excluded key witnesses and evidence and “gave the prosecution break after break.”
“The government sent a clear message to the Muslim community,” Elkarra concluded. “You do not speak to an FBI agent unless you have an attorney present.”
During the initial days after the arrest of Hamid Hayat, federal law enforcement officials repeatedly boasted that they had uncovered an Al Qaeda terrorist cell in Lodi, 35 miles south of Sacramento.
But the facts of the case ended up far narrower in scope. Scott, the federal prosecutor, said he never personally made a declaration about a terrorist cell, but he apologized nonetheless.
“To the extent we may have created false expectations, I regret that,” he said.
Controversy erupted at the conclusion of last year’s trial when one juror accused the panel foreman of making racist remarks and giving a hangman’s gesture to other jurors. Burrell heard arguments from the attorneys and last May refused to give Hamid Hayat a new trial.
Under federal law, Hayat must serve at least 85% of his sentence. With the more than two years he has already served in Sacramento County Jail, he could spend the next 18 years in federal prison.