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December 21, 2014

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Chicago man who backed terror group gets 14 years

CHICAGO — A Chicago businessman was sentenced to 14 years in prison Thursday for providing material support to overseas terrorism, including a Pakistani group whose 2008 attacks on Mumbai, India, left more than 160 people dead.

The judge sentenced Tahawwur Rana in U.S. District Court in Chicago to the prison term followed by five years of supervised release.

The Pakistani-born Canadian declined to address the judge prior to sentencing. Rana, 52, faced a maximum 30 years in prison.

Jurors in 2011 convicted Rana of providing support for the Pakistani group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and for supporting a never-carried-out plot to attack a Danish newspaper that printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005. The cartoons angered many Muslims because pictures of the prophet are prohibited in Islam.

But jurors cleared Rana of the third and most serious charge of involvement in the three-day rampage in Mumbai, India's largest city, which has often been called India's 9/11.

Rana's attorney, Patrick Blegen, had argued for a more lenient sentence that would take into account his poor health and the emotional impact of his separation from his wife and children. He said Rana had suffered a heart attack while in the federal lockup. He also argued that Rana did not present a future risk.

"Judge, he is a good man and he got sucked into something, but there's no risk that he's going to do it again. None," Blegen said.

Judge Harry Leinenweber said he was baffled at the descriptions put forward by his family of Rana as a kind, caring person, saying it was so "contrary" to the person who aided the plot on the newspaper's office.

"On the one hand we have a very intelligent person who is capable of providing assistance to many people," the judge said just before announcing his sentence. "But what is difficult to understand is: a person with that intelligence and that background and history of helping others ... how that type of person could get sucked into a dastardly plot that was proposed."

The government's star witness at Rana's trial was admitted terrorist David Coleman Headley, who had pleaded guilty to laying the groundwork for the Mumbai attacks. The American Pakistani testified against his school friend Rana to avoid the death penalty and extradition. He is scheduled to be sentenced in Chicago next week.

Headley spent five days on the witness stand — taking up more than half the trial — detailing how he allegedly worked for both the Pakistani intelligence agency known as the ISI and Lashkar.

Prosecutors also presented Rana's videotaped arrest statement to the FBI, during which he said he knew Headley had trained with Lashkar. They also played a September 2009 recorded phone conversation between the men.

Prosecutor Daniel Collins argued for a tough punishment that would deter others who would take part in similar plots and reflect the seriousness of the offense.

"There's not much worse than mass murder of this scale," he said of the plot, which was not ultimately carried out.

The judge responded that he doubted any sentence he imposed would deter anyone bent on committing a terrorist attack.

"Seems to me that people determined to carry out terrorism really don't care what happens to them," Leinenweber said. He added, however, that a long sentence would help prevent Rana from taking part in any future terrorist activity.

The judge also rejected the government's argument that the plot against the Danish newspaper was meant as a broader attack against the Danish government, amounting to an act of terrorism that should mean a harsher sentence.

Leinenweber said it seemed clear the plot was solely targeting an independent newspaper on private property, and was likely intended to intimidate other media outlets that might defame Islam or its prophet.

The defense attorney, Blegen, also noted that there was no shortage of government targets in Copenhagen if they had wanted to strike at Denmark's leaders.

Rana's wife was not present at Thursday's sentencing, and the defense attorney said the woman, a Canadian citizen, was recently denied entry to the United States.

Rana was also accused of allowing Headley to open a branch of his Chicago-based immigration law business in Mumbai as a cover story and travel as a representative of the company in Denmark. In court, a travel agent showed how Rana booked travel for Headley.

At the trial defense attorneys chipped away at Headley's credibility, portraying him as a manipulator and habitual liar. Jurors' decision not to convict Rana on all counts could suggest they weren't fully convinced by Headley.

Rana's trial in 2011 came just weeks after Navy SEALs found Osama bin Laden hiding in Pakistan. Some observers had expected testimony could reveal details about alleged links between ISI and Lashkar-e-Taiba. In the end, though, much that came out in testimony had been heard before through indictments and a report released by India's government.

The Pakistani government has maintained it did not know about bin Laden or help plan the Mumbai attacks.

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