CHICAGO – A Chicago businessman was sentenced to 14 years in prison Thursday for providing material support to overseas terrorism, including a Pakistani group whose 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, left more than 160 people dead.
Tahawwur Rana did not address the court before U.S. District Judge Harry Leinenweber imposed the sentence and did not react afterward. But his defense attorneys said the judge was right to reject prosecutors’ arguments that Rana deserved a stiffer sentence because the charges were related to terrorism.
Jurors in 2011 convicted Rana of providing support for the Pakistani group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and for supporting a never-carried-out plot to attack a Danish newspaper that printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005. The cartoons angered many Muslims because pictures of the prophet are prohibited in Islam.
But jurors cleared Rana of the third and most serious charge of involvement in the three-day rampage in Mumbai, India’s largest city, which has often been called India’s 9/11.
“We think the judge made the right ruling,” defense attorney Patrick Blegen said, adding he intends to appeal Rana’s conviction because the judge refused to separate the Denmark and Mumbai charges. “I had always been our belief that it would be very difficult to get a fair trial if he had to face charges for two separate plots at once.”
Prosecutors, who had sought a sentence of up to 30 years, issued a written statement in which Acting U.S. Attorney Gary S. Shapiro called the 14-year term a “serious” sentence “that should go a long way towards convincing would-be terrorists that they can’t hide behind the scenes, lend support to the violent aims of terrorist organizations and escape detection and punishment.”
The government’s star witness at Rana’s trial was admitted terrorist David Coleman Headley, who had pleaded guilty to laying the groundwork for the Mumbai attacks. The American Pakistani testified against his school friend Rana to avoid the death penalty and extradition and spent five days on the witness stand detailing how he allegedly worked for both the Pakistani intelligence agency known as the ISI and Lashkar.
Rana was accused of allowing Headley to open a branch of his Chicago-based immigration law business in Mumbai as a cover story and travel as a representative of the company in Denmark. During trial, a travel agent showed how Rana booked travel for Headley and prosecutors presented Rana’s videotaped arrest statement to the FBI, during which he said he knew Headley had trained with Lashkar. They also played a September 2009 recorded phone conversation between the men.
Defense attorneys portrayed Headley as a manipulator and habitual liar who duped his friend. Jurors’ decision not to convict Rana on all counts could suggest they weren’t fully convinced by Headley, who is scheduled to be sentenced in Chicago next week.
Prosecutor Daniel Collins on Thursday argued for a tough punishment for Rana that would deter others who would take part in similar plots and reflect the seriousness of the offense.
“There’s not much worse than mass murder of this scale,” he said of the plot, which was not ultimately carried out.
The judge responded that he doubted any sentence he imposed would deter anyone bent on committing a terrorist attack.
“Seems to me that people determined to carry out terrorism really don’t care what happens to them,” Leinenweber said. He added, however, that a long sentence would help prevent Rana from taking part in any future terrorist activity.
The judge also rejected the government’s argument that the plot against the Danish newspaper was meant as a broader attack against the Danish government, amounting to an act of terrorism that should mean a harsher sentence. Leinenweber said it seemed clear the plot was solely targeting an independent newspaper on private property, and was likely intended to intimidate other media outlets that might defame Islam or its prophet.
The defense attorney, Blegen, also noted that there was no shortage of government targets in Copenhagen if they had wanted to strike at Denmark’s leaders.
He argued for a more lenient sentence for the 52-year-old Rana that would take into account his poor health and the emotional impact of his separation from his wife and children. He said the Pakistani-born Canadian citizen had suffered a heart attack while in the federal lockup. He also argued that Rana did not present a future risk.
“Judge, he is a good man and he got sucked into something, but there’s no risk that he’s going to do it again. None,” Blegen said.
Judge Leinenweber said he was baffled at the descriptions of Rana from family and friends that portrayed him as a kind, caring person, saying it was so “contrary” to the person who aided the plot on the newspaper’s office.
“On the one hand we have a very intelligent person who is capable of providing assistance to many people,” the judge said just before announcing his sentence. “But what is difficult to understand is, a person with that intelligence and that background and history of helping others … how that type of person could get sucked into a dastardly plot that was proposed.”
Leinenweber also sentenced Rana to five years of supervised release after his prison term was up, but Blegen said it’s very likely that Rana would be deported to Canada upon release.
Rana’s wife was not present at Thursday’s sentencing, and the defense attorney said the woman, a Canadian citizen, was recently denied entry to the United States.
Rana’s trial in 2011 came just weeks after Navy SEALs found Osama bin Laden hiding in Pakistan. Some observers had expected testimony could reveal details about alleged links between ISI and Lashkar-e-Taiba. In the end, though, much that came out in testimony had been heard before through indictments and a report released by India’s government.
The Pakistani government has maintained it did not know about bin Laden or help plan the Mumbai attacks.