2d Circuit Overturns Terrorism Convictions

The 2d Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 69 page decision, vacated the 75 year prison sentence of a Yemeni cleric (Sheik Mohammed Ali Al-Moayad) and the 45 year prison sentence of his assistant (Mohammed Zayed) imposed in 2005 by the Federal District Court in Brooklyn. The defendants were convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 2339B (a) (1), providing material support (primarily financing) to designated terrorist organizations (in this case, Hamas and Al-Qaeda). The Circuit Court’s reversal, stating that the defendants were deprived of a fair trial, detailed inadmissible evidence that the government erroneously presented in its case against the defendants.

The government’s case was based in large part on an FBI sting operation which relied heavily on the assistance of a confidential informant named Mohammed Al-Anssi, a Yemeni national who, in difficult financial circumstance, approached the FBI seeking compensation in exchange for information. According to the opinion:

Al-Anssi initially asked the FBI for 5 million dollars in exchange for his assistance, “hoping that it will go up, no problem.” He also requested United States citizenship and that his family be brought to the United States from Yemen. In describing his motive for seeking compensation, Al-Anssi testified, “the issue was the truth, the whole issue, and after I chase the terrorists and to bring him here to America, I deserve even 10 million dollars.”

Al-Anssi stated that he was paid $100,000 by the FBI for his assistance. However, he believed that he deserved millions, “[a]nd I expect more than that.” Al-Anssi admitted that, because he was upset about his small payment from the FBI, he falsely told the Washington Post that the FBI promised to pay him 5 million dollars. He also testified that in November 2004, in an attempt to coerce the FBI into paying him more money, he set himself on fire in front of the White House. With regard to this incident, Al-Anssi testified that he did not intend to commit suicide, but that he “wanted to put the government and the world on notice,” and that “[i]t is my right to get as much as I can from the FBI.”

Choosing not to call the confidential informant as a witness in its case in chief, the US Attorney instead presented the informant’s written notes and a series of video tapes that he made of the defendant Al-Moayad to prove that he was funding terrorist organizations. One of the tapes was of a speech given by a guest at a wedding in Yemen hosted by Al-Moayad where a Hamas related guest made reference to another wedding ceremony in Tel Aviv on the same day where a terrorist attack occurred.

The government also relied on the testimony of a young Scottish law student named Gideon Black that a suicide bombing occurred on a bus in Tel Aviv that same day. Black was a passenger on the bus along with his cousin Yoni, who was killed in the attack. Over defense objections that it was unrelated to the charges and highly prejudicial, the trial judge permitted Black’s lengthy and detailed testimony about the bombing.

The Circuit Court opinion lists other examples of how the Justice Department undermined its own case with questionable evidence, use of entrapment techniques and other sensational tactics. It implicitly criticized the trial judge, the Hon. Sterling Johnson Jr. saying:

The district court’s cumulated errors in admitting Al-Anssi’s notes and the testimony of Gideon Black and Yahya Goba “cast such a serious doubt on the fairness of the trial” as to warrant reversal of the defendants’ convictions. That doubt is especially grave when we also take into account the district court’s erroneous admission of the mujahidin form, the wedding video, and the Croatian last will and testament, as well as its questionable handling of the derivative entrapment issue.

In reversing the convictions, the appeals court in an unusual directive remanded the case “to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion before a different district court judge”.

See the NY Times article on the ruling.