NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Tunisian man who prosecutors said had ties to a man accused of unsuccessfully plotting to derail a Canada-U.S. passenger train was sentenced by a U.S. judge to time served on Wednesday after pleading guilty last month to immigration charges.
Ahmed Abassi, 27, will be deported to Tunisia following the sentence by U.S. District Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, who made clear during a hearing in Manhattan federal court she viewed the 15 months he served as enough following his plea.
“I hope you will think very seriously about the events of the last year and will decide always to abide by the laws of the United States,” the judge said. “And if you do that, I wish you good luck.”
“Your honor, I agree,” Abassi, dressed in prison blue prison garb, said through an interpreter.
When charges were unsealed in May 2013, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Abassi had an “evil purpose for seeking to remain in the United States.”
But his plea deal in June appeared to mark a shift in the government’s stance. He pleaded guilty to making false statements to immigration agents and falsely filling out a green card application, without any reference to terrorism.
Prosecutors said Abassi had discussed various plots with Chiheb Esseghaier, another Tunisian charged in Canada last year with plotting to blow up a railroad track carrying passenger trains.
U.S. officials have said Esseghaier had a plan that involved blowing up a trestle on Canada’s side of the border as the Maple Leaf, Amtrak’s daily connection between Toronto and New York City, passed over it.
In a court filing Monday, prosecutors said in early 2013, Abassi, then living with his wife in Canada, went to Tunisia. While there, Canadian authorities revoked his visa because of the Esseghaier probe, without providing that explanation, prosecutors said.
An undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation agent claiming to own a real estate company called Abassi in Canada and invited him to the United States, offering to help get a visa, prosecutors said.
On arrival in New York in March 2013, U.S. immigration authorities, working with the FBI, questioned Abassi, who told them he planned to work for the agent’s company, a statement prosecutors said was false.
Abassi subsequently lived for free in an apartment the agent provided, meeting frequently with him or Esseghaier.
Abassi’s lawyer Sabrina Shroff in a filing before the sentencing said Abassi “steadfastly refused” to commit an act of terrorism, and prosecutors acknowledged he “repeatedly and flatly refused” to assist Esseghaier in attacks.
But prosecutors said his conversations suggested he had “dangerous, extremist views” and refused to participate in attacks “for the wrong reasons.”
Speaking after Wednesday’s hearing, Shroff called Abassi’s case “the worst kind,” where prosecutors sought to punish someone based solely on their opinions rather than their intention to act on them.
“His thoughts and opinions are extremely different than what he was willing to do,” she said.
Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman