A federal appeals court upheld the conviction Friday of a Virginia man convicted of joining al-Qaida and plotting to assassinate President Bush but said he must be resentenced.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a 30-year prison term and ordered a new sentencing hearing for Ahmed Omar Abu Ali. Prosecutors had argued that the judge improperly deviated from federal sentencing guidelines that called for life in prison.
The ruling is a major victory for prosecutors in one of their most high-profile terrorism cases.
Abu Ali grew up in northern Virginia and was valedictorian of a private Islamic high school. He joined al-Qaida while attending college in Saudi Arabia and discussed numerous potential terrorist attacks, including a plan to assassinate Bush.
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Abu Ali challenged his conviction, saying that a videotaped confession he made to Saudi authorities had been obtained through torture and should have been tossed out of court. He also said he had the scars on his back to prove he had been whipped in Saudi custody.
The government strongly denied torture and said the Saudis treated him well. The appeals court agreed that Abu Ali made a voluntary confession.
The three-judge panel's ruling upholding the conviction was unanimous; the ruling ordering a new sentencing hearing was split 2-1, with judges Harvie Wilkinson and William Traxler voting to remand and Judge Diana Gribbon Motz dissenting.
The judges cited the case as an example of the federal judiciary's ability to handle terror trials while safeguarding individuals' constitutional rights without jeopardizing national security.
“We are satisfied that Abu Ali received a fair trial, though not a perfect one, and that the criminal justice system performed those functions which the Constitution envisioned for it,” the court wrote.