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Bomber with Vancouver, Montreal connections gets tougher 37-year sentence

FILE PHOTO: In this courtroom drawing, U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour, left, hands down the sentencing of Ahmed Ressam (right) with defense attorney Tom Hillier (center) Wednesday, July 27, 2005 at the Federal Courthouse in Seattle. Ressam was sentenced to 22 years in prison for plotting to blow up the Los Angeles airport on the eve of the millennium.

Peter Millet/AP

The so-called Millennium Bomber, who was recruited in Montreal and assembled his bomb-making materials at a heritage Vancouver motor court, has had an extra 15 years tacked on to the 22 year sentence he originally received from a U.S. judge.

In a Seattle court room Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge John Coughenor handed Ahmed Ressam a 37-year jail term, after the same judge's more lenient punishment of 22 years was twice overturned on appeal. The appeals court majority ruled that Judge Coughenour failed to properly account for the fact that Mr. Ressam, who has been incarcerated since late 1999, would be 51 when released, sufficiently young enough to pose a threat to the public.

But the outspoken Judge Coughenor continued to express dismay over the prosecution of Mr. Ressam and the federal government's call for the convicted terrorist to be sent away for 65 years to life.

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"I will not sentence a man to 50 lashes and then 50 more for getting blood on the whip," he told the court.

After several months preparing lethal explosives at the 2400 Motel on Vancouver's busy Kingsway Avenue in 1999, Mr. Ressam had headed south on a plot to blow up large sections of the Los Angeles airport on the eve of the new millennium.

He travelled to Victoria, then boarded a ferry to Port Angeles, Washington. There, a suspicious border agent began searching Mr. Ressam's vehicle, prompting him to flee. He was soon arrested and charged, and convicted on eight terrorist-related charges.

Mr. Ressam was part of a group in Montreal that plotted wide-scale terrorist destruction, including a suggestion that many Jews be killed by exploding a gasoline truck in the Montreal district of Outremont.

Originally, he co-operated with authorities after his arrest, leading to the extradition from Canada and sentencing of Mokhtar Haouari to 24 years' imprisonment in the U.S. for his role in the L.A. airport plot.

But he subsequently stopped providing information, angering U.S. authorities who used his change of heart as a reason for a lengthy prison sentence.

Because of Mr. Ressam's continued silence, the United States was forced to drop its extradition bid against another suspect, Samir Ait Mohamed, who spent more than four years in custody in Vancouver.

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Mr. Mohamed was subsequently released and is now believed to be living back in his native Algeria.

In a statement filed in court last week, Mr. Ressam repeated his retraction of all previous statements, saying a deal to co-operate was made under duress.

He also insisted he was "against killing innocent people of any gender, colour or religion," adding, "I apologize for my action." He concluded by saying, "You can judge me as you wish, I will not object to any of your sentences."

Defence lawyers have suggested that severe mental stress Mr. Ressam suffered from seven-plus years in solitary confinement at the "Supermax" federal prison in Florence, Colorado, may have influenced his decision to recant.

Defence lawyers argued that Mr. Ressam faces deportation back to Algeria and likely further imprisonment there once released from U.S. custody. They also said he would most certainly be a marked man, viewed by groups such as al Qaeda as a traitor for the co-operation he gave U.S. authorities before his recantation.

Disputing prosecutors' assertions that the information he provided was of little value, defence lawyers said Mr. Ressam gave more than 70 interviews to prosecutors from the United States and several other Western countries. They said he gave dozens of names authorities could act on, as well as vital information about recruitment, training, organization and financing of Islamist militant groups.

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He was expected to appear in court for re-sentencing on Wednesday, his lawyer, Thomas Hillier told Reuters.

With files from The Canadian Press

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