No prison time for imam in New York subway plot

A Muslim cleric accused of double-crossing law enforcement officials investigating a scheme to blow up New York subways was spared jail time at his sentencing Thursday after he told a judge he never meant to help the “idiots” involved in the plot.

But the imam wept as he was ordered to leave the United States within 90 days and never come back.

Ahmad Wais Afzali, 38, who came to New York from Afghanistan as a child, pleaded guilty to lying to authorities investigating the September 2009 plot, which prosecutors have said was one of the most serious threats to U.S. security since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The lie stemmed from a phone conversation Afzali, acting as a police informant, had with Najibullah Zazi last fall.

Prosecutors charged Afzali with lying after he denied tipping off Zazi that law enforcement authorities had been asking about his activities.

In his plea, Afzali acknowledged he had told Zazi that police were inquiring about him, but he said it was an innocent comment and not aimed at derailing the investigation.

“Honest to God, it was never my intention to help those idiots,” Afzali said, referring to Zazi and two other suspects arrested in connection with the case.

Under terms of the plea deal, Judge Frederic Block sentenced Afzali to time already served -- from his arrest Sept. 20 until his release on bond Sept. 24 -- and ordered him to remain under electronic surveillance while he arranges to leave the country.

“You’re going to have to make peace with yourself outside of the United States,” Block told Afzali, who dabbed his eyes with a tissue as his attorney patted him on the back. Afzali’s brother, father, mother and wife sat in the courtroom.

Defense attorney Ronald Kuby repeated his assertion that Afzali had done nothing wrong and was simply doing as he was asked by New York police when they came to him last fall and asked him to use his contacts in the Muslim community to fish for information about a suspected bombing plot.

Zazi was living in the Denver area at the time. Afzali knew Zazi, 25, because they once lived in the same Queens neighborhood.

Kuby denied that Afzali’s chat with Zazi had prompted Zazi to abort the bomb plot and try to dodge authorities. He said law enforcement blew its cover when police pulled Zazi over for a supposed traffic violation last September in New York.

Zazi, who pleaded guilty in February to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and other terrorism-related charges, has said the traffic stop alerted him that he was being watched. As a result, Zazi said, he disposed of his bomb-making materials, called off the plot and fled New York.

He was arrested after he returned to Colorado, and he was brought back to New York to face charges.

Afzali arrived in court on his own, dressed in a dark suit and white skullcap, his bushy beard reaching to his chest. He chatted briefly with his family and friends before going before the judge and reading his statement, which spoke of his shame at being known as a “lying imam” and his heartbreak at leaving the United States.

“He will never, ever be able to return,” Kuby said, calling it “punishment enough” given Afzali’s ties to the country.

Prosecutors had not sought jail time, but they rejected the portrayal of Afzali as an innocent unwittingly caught up in a conspiracy, and said he had tried to be a double agent and then lied when he was caught.

Outside the courthouse, Afzali said he was struggling to accept his deportation order and didn’t know where he would go. “I’m going to start shopping around. I’m sure some good country is going to host me,” he said.

Zazi faces possible life imprisonment when he is sentenced in June. Two alleged co-conspirators, Adis Medunjanin and Zarein Ahmedzay, both 25, have pleaded not guilty.