A Palestinian activist was sentenced Wednesday to more than 11 years in prison for refusing to testify before a grand jury in 2003 about the activities of the Palestinian extremist group Hamas.
Abdelhaleem Ashqar, 49, a business professor who lives outside Washington, contended he shouldn't have to give testimony that would aid the Israeli government in its strife with Palestinians.
"It is something I will not do as long as I live," Ashqar said in a nearly two-hour statement at his sentencing in U.S. District Court in Chicago. He said he refused "to live as a traitor or as a collaborator."
But U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve told Ashqar that no one -- regardless of his political beliefs -- can be excused from aiding a grand jury investigation after being given immunity from prosecution.
"You have disregarded your legal obligation," St. Eve told Ashqar. "In the 1 1/2 hours that you have spoken, I have not seen any remorse from you. ... I also have heard exactly the opposite."
As the judge spoke, Ashqar's wife, Asma, sobbed in the front row. Later, paramedics were called to treat Ashqar's mother-in-law after she collapsed in a court hallway.
The government had accused Ashqar and Muhammad Salah, 53, a former Bridgeview grocer, of being leading members of Hamas and conspiring to support terrorism from the United States.
But a jury acquitted the two in February of the most serious terrorism-related charges but convicted both of obstruction of justice. Ashqar also was convicted of criminal contempt.
After Wednesday's sentencing, St. Eve ordered Ashqar taken into immediate custody, agreeing with prosecutors who said he was a risk to flee. He had been confined to his Virginia home.
As Ashqar walked from the courtroom, his wife and young nephew cried and a few of his more than 50 supporters shouted protests.
The sentence of 11 years and 3 months in prison was severe for someone who refused to testify before a grand jury.
Ashqar's attorney, William Moffitt, said in court he knew of no case in which a defendant had been sentenced to more than 5 years for similar conduct…
The lengthy sentence sparked dismay and disappointment in Chicago's Muslim community, which followed the case closely, said Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Chicago chapter.
"He is not a threat to this country," Rehab said. "He felt that he didn't want to be complicit in the persecution of other Palestinians." (MORE)