Fateful day arrives for Muslims caught in sting

Judge to pass sentence on mosque leader, pizza shop owner this morning

Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Thursday, March 8, 2007

ALBANY - Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain will walk into U.S. District Court this morning knowing that hundreds of people, some of them strangers, have asked a federal judge to show them mercy.

The Muslim men, an imam and a pizzeria owner, were convicted in October of money laundering and conspiring to aid terrorism after being snared in an FBI sting that startled the region, playing on post-9/11 fears of terrorist plots. Prosecutors have asked the judge to follow stiff federal sentencing guidelines that call for decades in prison for their roles in the fictitious plot to sell a shoulder-fired missile to terrorists targeting a Pakistani diplomat. Both face a recommended sentence between 30 years and life.

But among their supporters is an assistant state attorney general, a regular at Hossain's downtown pizzeria, who believes the businessman's biggest failing was the ease with which he trusted others - in this case, an FBI informant looking to cushion his own fall.

A key element of their defense has been the notion that the government trapped them. Neither man had a criminal record, but in addition to money laundering, both were convicted of terrorism-related charges that drastically increase the potential sentences.

Aref, the target of the probe, was convicted of 10 of 30 counts, including lying to the FBI about whether he knew the founder of an Iraqi-based terrorist organization.

But, unlike Hossain, he did not profit from the scheme.

Hossain, who the FBI used to get closer to Aref, was convicted on 27 counts - none alleging terrorist ties.

For Hossain, 52, who suffers from hypertension and diabetes, 30 years could be a life sentence, his attorney contends in court papers. Both men have large families with young children, a factor their attorneys have asked the court to consider.

The decision falls to Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas J. McAvoy, who could stray from the sentencing guidelines if he finds compelling reasons for doing so.

The men's attorneys believe those reasons are well-documented in their lives: a pious businessman who struggled to eke out a life in a new country and a scholarly spiritual leader who escaped persecution in his native Iraq.

Authorities paint a more sinister image.

On Aug. 4, 2004, federal agents raided the men's Central Avenue mosque capping an investigation that began a little more than a year before, when a man posing as a wealthy importer walked into Hossain's shop and struck up a friendship.

The fictitious plot was devised by federal agents to get closer to Aref, 36, a Kurdish refugee from northern Iraq, whose name and Albany contact information, prosecutors say, surfaced in documents seized in 2003 from three suspected terrorist camps in Iraq.

In targeting Aref, authorities dispatched their informant to befriend Hossain, a Bangladeshi immigrant and a founding member of Masjid As-Salam, the mosque where Aref served as spiritual leader since 2000.

Why the government chose Hossain, who had no criminal record or known ties to terrorist organizations, is still unclear.

The informant, Shahed "Malik" Hussain, a Pakistani immigrant and former government translator, was cooperating with the FBI in hopes he might receive leniency in his own criminal case. Hussain pleaded guilty to taking bribes for helping immigrants secure driver's licenses and would eventually walk free, in part, because of his cooperation in the sting.

He offered Hossain a $5,000 gift in exchange for laundering the $50,000 proceeds from the sale of the surface-to-air missile. Hossain was to repay the $50,000 in checks written to the informant's business and called on Aref, who as imam occupied a position of trust, to witness the agreement.

The scheme unfolded over a year, but federal prosecutors contend that both men, by the end, knew what they were doing.

The men's attorneys have argued that recorded conversations between the three drifted between Urdu, English and Arabic, muddling their context and clarity. The integrity of the translations of the meetings became a contentious issue during the monthlong trial.

Prosecutors call the facts of the case "chilling" and, in pre-sentencing papers, counter defense calls for leniency with this reality: Neither man tried to contact authorities about the informant's overtures - even after they learned the source of the money and, in Hossain's case, saw the weapon. Aref later saw its smaller triggering mechanism.

Attorneys for the two continue to argue the men were lured into a crime they never would have committed had the FBI not entered their lives.

The case and the jury's guilty verdict polarized the region. Some condemned the government's case as a witch hunt while others hailed the sting as a post-9/11 success story. "I want them to know that America is compassionate and conscientious," James Fulmer, a Saratoga Springs carpenter, wrote to McAvoy in a neat handwritten letter. "Can we show the Muslim community and the world that we are not driven by fear, that we are motivated by the ideals that brought the families here?"

For about 12 years, Joseph Koczaja, an assistant state attorney general, was a lunch customer at Hossain's pizza shop. Koczaja was ready to testify on Hossain's behalf but was never called.

"Had the FBI not led these men into the acts for which they were convicted, they would still be supporting their families in legal and productive ways," Koczaja wrote.

If the two men are sentenced to prison, they will remain at the Rensselaer County Jail until the Federal Bureau of Prisons places them, which could take days or weeks.

Where they end up would be determined by criteria used by the bureau to classify inmates - including criminal history, nature of offense and proximity to their homes.

McAvoy late last month denied Aref and Hossain's request for a new trial.

The men's attorneys will have 10 days after sentencing to file their notices of appeal, which both have vowed to do.

Staff writer Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at jcarleo-evangelist@ timesunion.com.