A federal judge this week decried the effects of solitary confinement on a prisoner convicted on terrorism-related charges, who has spent 12 years inside ADX Florence supermax. The same judge then proceeded to sentence the prisoner in question to 37 more years, which will most likely be spent in the same torturous conditions. But these 37 years were in fact a lesser alternative to life sentence sought by federal prosecutors, who are angered by the prisoner’s decision to stop supplying them with evidence against other terrorism suspects. The Los Angeles Times reports:
A federal judge criticized the effects of solitary confinement Wednesday and refused to impose a life sentence on Ahmed Ressam, convicted in 2001 of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport. Instead, the judge ordered the Algerian national to serve 37 years in prison.
U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour said Ressam’s decision to stop providing evidence against fellow Al Qaeda suspects was not “obstructionism,” as U.S. prosecutors argued in seeking a life sentence, but “a deranged protest” against the severe conditions of his imprisonment. The changes in Ressam as a result of his confinement for the last 12 years — alone in a cell the size of a small bathroom — were “marked and stunning,” the judge said.
“It is my ethical responsibility not to hold him culpable for the harmful and involuntary consequences of that punishment,” the judge said. “I will not sentence a man to 50 lashes with a whip, and then 50 more for getting blood on the whip.”
The hearing Wednesday morning in a federal courtroom in Seattle marked the end of several years of tangled legal proceedings for Ressam, who was arrested in Port Angeles, Wash., in 1999 after driving off a ferry from Canada in a car with a trunk full of explosives. He was convicted on terrorism and other charges in spring 2001 in a plot that federal authorities said was designed to strike Los Angeles International Airport.
Ressam, known as the “Millennium Bomber,” agreed to provide evidence against other terrorist suspects and initially he did, but then refused to provide further help and recanted some of his previous statements…
The district court twice had sentenced Ressam to 22 years in prison, in part reflecting his previous cooperation, and twice a federal appeals court sent the case back, calling the sentences too lenient. Coughenour said his new sentence reflected the legal sentencing guidelines required by the appeals court as well as Ressam’s failure to extend his cooperation.
But he rejected the government’s call for a life sentence, in part because he agreed with the defense that Ressam was not likely to return to the fold of Al Qaeda after his release. To the contrary, the judge said, the defendant’s cooperation in several cases so far would probably brand him a traitor.
Coughenour also gave credence to defense arguments that the harsh conditions of solitary confinement have affected Ressam’s mental state and his decision to cooperate with federal authorities.
In his sentencing memorandum, federal public defender Thomas Hillier II provided a psychiatrist’s report that Ressam is probably “permanently injured and severely impaired” by the conditions at the federal maximum security prison in Florence, Colo., where he is housed.
The defense said he has spent the last 12 years alone in an 87-square-foot cell with a single window looking onto a cement yard. He is allowed out only once a day into a windowless room or a caged area similar to a dog run, all while confined in leg irons, handcuffs and belly chain. His contact with others outside prison staff is limited mainly to visits with lawyers a few times a year.
“The wisdom of solitary confinement may be open for debate, but the effect that it has had on Mr. Ressam is not,” the judge said in his ruling.