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Character counts, according to sentencing court

A criminal defendant whose character and connections generated more fan mail than an Alexandria federal judge has seen in 25 years won a reduction of his guidelines sentence for obstruction of justice and lying to a grand jury and to an FBI agent about his activities in Pakistan and alleged contacts with a jihad training camp controlled by al-Qaeda affiliate Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Senior U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris said in his Aug. 3 opinion in U.S. v. Benkahla that defendant Sabri Benkahla, an American citizen born and educated in Northern Virginia, has “strong, positive relationships with friends, family and the community.” According to Cacheris, correspondence addressed to the court attested to Benkahla’s “honor, integrity, moral character, opposition to extremism and devotion to civic duty.”

But the government’s evidence showed that eight persons to whom Benkahla was connected went to foreign jihad training camps, one was convicted of soliciting treason, and the government was able to get cooperative testimony leading to convictions for specific terrorist acts in Australia, France and England.

Although Benkahla’s convictions made him eligible for a sentence up to 21 years under a special enhancement for felonies involving terrorism, Cacheris said Benkahla was the “quintessential candidate for a downward departure,” and ruled that a 10-year sentence would satisfy federal sentencing policy.

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