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US sentences British men over Taliban support

A US judge sentenced two British men to a combined total of 20.5 years in prison Wednesday for conspiring to provide and for providing equipment and personnel to the Taliban.

NEW YORK: A US judge sentenced two British men to a combined total of 20.5 years in prison Wednesday for conspiring to provide and for providing equipment and personnel to the Taliban. Computer engineer Babar Ahmad was sentenced to 12.5 years and Syed Talha Ahsan, who was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome in custody, to time served at eight years. 

They were arrested by British police in 2004 and 2006 respectively and extradited to the United States in 2012 as part of a batch of Britons wanted on terror charges. British campaigners bitterly opposed their extradition on the grounds that they were held so long without charge and arguing they should be tried at home. Both sentences were lighter than demanded by prosecutors.

Ahmad, 40, and Ahsan, 34, were indicted in Connecticut on charges of conspiring to support and supporting the Taliban regime in Afghanistan while they sheltered Al-Qaeda, Chechens fighting the Russians and related terror groups. For years, they pleaded not guilty but in December changed their plea on two counts of the indictment -- conspiring to provide and providing support to the former Taliban regime.

US District Judge Janet Hall sentenced Ahmad to 150 months' imprisonment and Ahsan to 96 months, or time already served. The case was heard in US federal court in New Haven, Connecticut because websites they ran in London relied for a time on a Connecticut hosting company.

Ahsan is now expected to be released and deported. Ahmad has already served a decade in custody and reports suggest he too could be freed in months. Their cases attracted the support of thousands in Britain and campaigners say Ahmad was the Briton held the longest without charge as part of the global "war on terror."

The son of a retired civil servant and a retired science teacher, Ahmad worked in the IT department of London's prestigious Imperial College at the time of his arrest. Ahsan, who was educated at one of Britain's top private schools and has a degree with first class honors in Arabic, was looking for a job as a librarian when he was detained. He now writes poetry, for which he has won prizes.

But the US government says the men supported terror, even after the 9/11 attacks, by running websites produced under the name Azzam Publications and operated from 1996 to 2002. Prosecutors said Ahmad recruited and arranged for would-be fighters to travel to Afghanistan to train, and solicited military suits and gas masks for the Taliban against US retaliation after the 2000 Al-Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole. According to court papers, he tried to secure GPS devices, Kevlar helmets, night vision goggles, ballistic vests and camouflage combat suits.

The Taliban, in power from 1996 until late 2001, sheltered Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda until they were toppled by the 2001 US-led offensive that followed the 9/11 attacks. During that time, Al-Qaeda bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the USS Cole and carried out the 9/11 attacks on New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. 

US prosecutors welcomed the sentences despite having called for stiffer penalties. Attorney Deirdre Daly said Ahmad provided "unprecedented" support to terrorists for over seven years, knowing that his efforts could result in deaths of Americans and others.

After the 9/11 attacks, Ahmad and the websites urged Pakistanis all over the world to travel to Afghanistan to fight the 2001 US-led invasion, US prosecutors said. Both defendants had accessed an email that contained previously classified plans regarding the deployment of a US naval battle group from California to the Middle East. Azzam Publications also posted detailed instructions on how to raise and deliver amounts over $20,000 in cash via the Taliban's consulate in Pakistan.

In 2009, Ahmad won 60,000 pounds ($102,817 today) compensation from British police after being injured while he was held briefly without charge in December 2003. Officers re-arrested him in August 2004 following an extradition request from the United States. Both Ahmad and Ahsan were flown to the United States with radical cleric Abu Hamza, who was convicted in May on 11 kidnapping and terror charges, and faces life behind bars.

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