WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court on Friday upheld the conviction of an American citizen for plotting to assassinate President George W. Bush and conspiring with al Qaeda, rejecting his claims that he had been tortured into confessing by the Saudi police.
As part of its ruling, the appeals court based in Richmond, Virginia, overturned Ahmed Abu Ali’s 30-year prison sentence on the grounds it was unreasonably lenient and sent the case back for resentencing.
“In this case, 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 three-judge panel concluded.
Abu Ali’s lawyers argued he had been tortured into confessing while he was held in Saudi Arabia, but the appeals court disagreed and ruled his statements were voluntary.
Abu Ali, who was born in Texas and lived in the Washington suburb of Falls Church, Virginia, was arrested in June 2003 while studying at a Saudi university and was held in Saudi custody for 20 months before being returned to the United States after being indicted.
In Saudi Arabia, he signed confessions and made statements admitting to the plot against Bush and to having ties to an al Qaeda cell.
But when the case went to trial in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, Abu Ali’s lawyers said he made up the confessions after being tortured by the Saudi domestic security police. He said they repeatedly whipped him on the back.
Saudi officials denied Abu Ali’s claims of mistreatment. U.S. prosecutors said there was no evidence to prove he had been tortured.
The appeals court agreed with the trial judge’s finding that Abu Ali was not tortured, abused, threatened, held in cruel conditions or subjected to coercive interrogations.
U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg in Virginia hailed the ruling.
“Abu Ali was part of a dangerous al Qaeda cell that sought to carry out attacks against — and within — the United States, and we are pleased that the appellate court affirmed this important conviction on every count,” he said.
The part of the ruling upholding the conviction was unanimous. A jury in 2005 found Abu Ali guilty on all nine counts.
The part of the ruling overturning the sentence was by a 2-1 vote, with judges J. Harvie Wilkinson and William Traxler siding with the government and Judge Diana Gribbon Motz dissenting.
Prosecutors had sought a life sentence for Abu Ali, who had faced a minimum term of 20 years in prison. The appeals court did not specify what sentence Abu Ali should get, but said it should reflect “the full gravity of the situation.”
“He joined an al Qaeda terrorist cell in Saudi Arabia in order to engage in jihad against the United States. He plotted to assassinate the president of the United States and other officials, to hijack and destroy American planes and to attack nuclear power stations in the United States,” the court said.
Joshua Dratel, Abu Ali’s New York-based attorney, said he would ask the entire appeals court to review at least some of the issues.
“Of course, we are disappointed with the result, but will persevere to obtain the relief to which we believe Mr. Abu Ali is entitled,” Dratel said.
Editing by Eric Beech