Help to free Talha Ahsan

The plea bargain

During the afternoon of the 10th December 2013, Talha Ahsan pleaded guilty before US District Judge Janet C. Hall in New Haven federal court to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists (in a violation of 18 U.S. Code § 371) and one count of providing material support to terrorists (in a violation of 18 U.S. Code § 2339A), both from his involvement in Azzam Publications. Babar Ahmad also entered his guilty pleas in the morning of the same day.

The guilty pleas were announced by Deirdre M. Daly (Acting United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut), John Carlin (Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security), John Sandweg, (Acting ICE Director), and Patricia M. Ferrick (Special Agent in Charge of the New Haven Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation).

Babar Ahmad admitted that he helped to establish and operate a family of websites collectively known as Azzam Publications. During the entire period of its existence it was based in Britain with data stored on servers physically located in several countries including the United States.

Azzam Publications established its first website on the 20th February 1997, initially with the URL www.webstorage.com/~azzam and subsequently with the URL www.azzam.com. From January 1997 until December 1998, Azzam Publications purchased web hosting services from Webstorage.com that was owned by Internet Quality Services (IQS) in Nevada. From February 1999 until September 2001, Azzam Publications purchased web hosting services from Alabama-based Allwebco.com. Allwebco was a reseller of internet web-hosting services who purchased and leased bandwidth and server storage space from OnLineMarketing (OLM), LLC, a web hosting company whose headquarters were located in Trumbull, Connecticut. OLM stored data on its servers in Lisle, Illinois.

The www.azzam.com website went offline on the 27th September 2001, and was no longer hosted by Allwebco on OLM servers. It remained offline until 20th November 2001. In October 2001, Azzam Publications received donated web space on a server in Canada. In late November 2001, it was hosted through a provider of internet webhosting services located in Indonesia until it shut down permanently in July 2002.

The second website established by Azzam Publications was www.qoqaz.net that went online in November 1999, and was hosted by Swift Internet, a company located in Britain. This website had several mirror sites, also hosted by Swift Internet, on web space donated from around the world. One mirror site was hosted until September 2001 on donated web space belonging to a web hosting company in New Jersey named MindCraft, Inc., which utilized DNS servers resolving to CI Host in Bedford, Texas.

On 15th September 2001, www.qoqaz.net website shut down as an independent website. Between November 2001 and July 2002, the www.qoqaz.net domain automatically redirected users to the www.azzam.com website.

Talha Ahsan was soft-spoken and deferential as he answered Hall’s questions about his plea decision, and said that he only had "general knowledge" of the websites of Azzam Publications but did not operate them or have administrative access. He admitted assisting Babar Ahmad during 2001 by processing customer orders received at the PO Box of Azzam Publications for media products advertised on the Azzam websites, and posted products to customers in Britain and abroad. He also supplied Babar Ahmad with electronic copies of correspondence sent to the PO Box. On one occasion he received an unsolicited document that detailed the makeup, capabilities, vulnerabilities and upcoming movements of a US naval battle group from the United States to its deployment in the Persian Gulf. He admitted creating and saving an electronic version of the document, and does not dispute that it was subsequently found on a floppy disk in Babar Ahmad's house in December 2003.

His attorney, Richard Reeve, informed Hall that Talha Ahsan was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, but it has not affected his ability to assist in his own defense. He also described Talha Ahsan as "very intelligent".

Throughout the hearing, Talha Ahsan frequently asked Reeve to explain what Hall was asking. Several times he insisted that Reeve make it clear he only had a "mitigating" role in the terrorist scheme. Reeve told Hall that Talha Ahsan "did not have personal knowledge" of some of the allegations in the agreement, and said that he did not administer the websites. Reeve also asserted federal sentencing guidelines for terrorist offenses are "unreasonable" and use "one cookie-cutter approach" for defendants, no matter what their specific actions.

As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors dropped several other charges against both Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan including Money Laundering, and Conspiracy to Kill, Kidnap, Maim Or Injure Persons or Damage Property in a Foreign Country.

US District Judge Janet C. Hall scheduled sentencing for the 4th March 2014. She said she will need to study the upcoming pre-sentence report to find out more about Ahsan before deciding what sentence is appropriate. Prosecutors agreed not to object when he applies for permission to carry out his sentences in Britain, and requests that the District Court recommend to the Bureau of Prisons that he is given credit for the time spent in pre-trial detention.

The plea agreement does not actually mean that Talha Ahsan is guilty. This is because the American system of justice works in a completely different way from the British system of justice. In Britain a defendent is given a full trial with a jury. In the United States a defendent is given of choice of holding a full trial with the risk of resulting in a long sentence if found guilty or pleading guilty and receiving a shorter sentence. The result of this situation is that around 97% of defendants plead guilty rather than hold a full trial.

Christopher Tappin pleaded guilty on pragmatic grounds, rather than because he actually was guilty, in order to receive a 33 month sentence in Britain rather than risk a 35 year sentence in the US with no option of parole. The Natwest Three were alleged to have committed 7 counts of wire fraud but decided to plead guilty to one instance rather than risk facing 35 years in jail.

An important point that the reader of this article must take into account is that Talha Ahsan is being convicted under American law rather than British law. American law did not apply to him during the time he provided services to Azzam Publications because all activities were carried out in Britain and his involvement with Azzam Publications ceased a few years before the 2003 Extradition Act came into force. He has never visited the United States prior to his extradition in 2012.

The websites established by Azzam Publications were visible to the British police and security services and archived copies of them still exist. If Talha Ahsan had violated any British laws relating to terrorism or soliciting murder through his involvement with Azzam Publications then he would have been put on trial in Britain many years ago.

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