NEW YORK, (AP)- A Yemeni cleric who bragged about his ties to Osama bin Laden was sentenced Thursday to 75 years in prison _ the maximum _ in a terrorism financing case that was nearly derailed when the government”s star witness set himself on fire outside the White House.
A federal judge prefaced Sheik Mohammed Ali Hassan al-Moayad”s sentence with a recitation of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, beginning with a hijacked jet crashing into the World Trade Center.
"We all remember September the 11th," U.S. District Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. said. "While the defendant is not being sentenced as a result of the events of 9/11, he came to the attention of the authorities because of 9/11."
A jury in March found al-Moayad, 57, guilty of conspiring to support and attempting to support al-Qaida and the Palestinian extremist group Hamas. He also was convicted of actually supporting Hamas, but acquitted of supporting al-Qaida.
Al-Moayad was lured to Germany by two FBI informants in 2003 and secretly recorded promising to funnel money to Hamas and al-Qaida. He also boasted that bin Laden called him "my sheik." He was arrested by German police and sent to the U.S.
One of the informants, Mohamed Alanssi, set himself on fire in Washington last November in what he later described as an attempt to get more money from the FBI, which paid him at least $100,000.
Alanssi recovered in time for the trial and described al-Moayad as a dedicated funder of terrorism who boasted of giving bin Laden $20 million in the years before Sept. 11.
Defense attorneys argued that al-Moayad was duped into the terror-financing scheme by Alanssi, who played on the sheik”s desire to fund a charitable bakery and other projects in Yemen.
The judge called the secretly recorded conversations "chilling" and drew a connection between al-Moayad”s desire to fund terrorism, the Sept. 11 attacks and a suicide bus bombing in Israel that was described during the trial by one of the survivors.
"The logical question would be: How were the monies used by al-Qaida? How were the monies used by Hamas?" Johnson said.
Al-Moayad”s attorney, William Goodman, said outside the court that no evidence connected al-Moayad to the Sept. 11 attacks. "I think it”s terribly unfair," Goodman said.
Asking the judge for leniency, al-Moayad described a life of giving food, clothing and other assistance to poverty-stricken Yemenis.
Prosecutors hailed the sentence as a victory in the war on terrorism.
"Those who finance terrorist attacks, and rejoice in the murder of innocent victims, are no different from those who plant the bombs or carry the backpacks," U.S. Attorney Roslynn Mauskopf said. "Money is the lifeblood of terrorism, and this master terrorist financier richly deserves the maximum sentence imposed today."
Al-Moayad appeared distressed at what his lawyer said amounted to a life sentence.
"Your honor, what have I done?" he said in Arabic as he was led away.