Albany Times Union
The justice of leniency
First published: Thursday, March 8, 2007
One thing above all should be on the mind of Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas McAvoy today as he goes about sentencing two Albany men for the crimes of money laundering and conspiring to aid terrorism. It's that the ultimate crime here, selling a shoulder-fired missile to terrorists, never occurred. That much was part of an unsettling sting operation in the federal government's post-Sept. 11 anti-terrorism efforts. No sooner had Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain been arrested in August of 2004 than an assistant U.S. attorney general involved in the case, James Comey, made the distinction between a sting and an actual terrorist plot clear. The sting was intended to send a message to those who might indeed be plotting terrorist attacks against the United States, Mr. Comey said, but it was not the crime of the century.
Judge McAvoy ought to ask himself, then, why the government picked these two men to be the messengers. That's a question that remains unsatisfactorily answered, even after the convictions of Mr. Aref and Mr. Hossain.
Judge McAvoy ought to further consider the politically charged post-Sept. 11 atmosphere in which the case was pursued -- resulting with a jury's verdicts of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt -- before he imposes punishment.
Deluged as he is with pleas for leniency, Judge McAvoy should hear one more of them. He should carefully consider the words, printed on the facing page, of Shamshad Ahmad, president of the mosque where Mr. Aref was an imam and Mr. Hossain was a member.
Federal sentencing guidelines allow, if not encourage, Judge McAvoy to send these men to prison for decades -- if not the rest of their lives. But there are sound reasons for him to deviate from those guidelines, as the law also allows, and impose much shorter and more reasonable sentences.
Justice will be served nonetheless if these men, who escaped countries where injustice is commonplace, and who previously lived honorable lives in the United States, are treated appropriately. Mr. Aref and Mr. Hossain are entitled to consideration of what kind of lives they might have continued to lead if they had never been lured into a sting operation.
Justice will be properly upheld if Judge McAvoy considers that the government informant who played such a crucial role in the convictions of Mr. Aref and Mr. Hossain had been in criminal trouble of his own. Shahed "Malik" Hussain had been accused of selling fraudulent drivers' licenses to immigrants. He aided the pursuit of Mr. Aref and Mr. Hossain in the hope that he might receive, yes, leniency.
We're not asking the judge to reconsider the guilt of these men. That's now a matter of record, in verdicts that remain subject to appeal. We are, however, asking him to re-examine the larger circumstances behind their convictions. That would begin today, with shorter prison sentences than Judge McAvoy might otherwise be prepared to dispense.