Federal appeals court upholds women’s prison sentences in terror case

Hawo Mohamed Hassan, left, and Amina Farah Ali entering the federal courthouse during their 2011 trial.

StarTribune Masthead Tweeks

A federal appeals court has upheld the federal prison sentences of two Rochester women convicted of funneling money to Al-Shabab, an organization designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist group fighting in Somalia.

Amina Farah Ali, 39, received 20 years in prison while Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 68, received 10 years in prison in May 2013. They were among the first set of defendants sent to prison from Minneapolis in the country’s ongoing anti-terrorism investigations since Sept. 11, 2001.

The women, both U.S. citizens who came here from Somalia, were convicted in 2011 of conspiring to provide material support to Al-Shabab by fundraising in Rochester for what prosecutors called “a deadly pipeline” of money and fighters from the United States to Somalia.

Evidence showed that both participated in fundraising teleconferences featuring lecturers — often members of Al-Shabab, where listeners would pledge money, while Hassan kept track of the donors’ phone numbers. Ali spoke frequently with members of Al-Shabab.

The women countered that they thought they were fundraising for a health center in Somalia, but during trial prosecutors played tape-recorded telephone calls between the women and Al-Shabab leaders, including one in which Ali described news of a suicide bombing as “wonderful.” Hassan described another suicide bombing targeting a foreign minister as “the best joy ever.”

Defendants in the Somali cases have argued that Ethiopia invaded Somalia to support a newly created transitional government that lacked support from the Somali people. Attorneys say their clients backed the resistance to the invasion. However, prosecutors argued that the transitional government was recognized by foreign nations, so any support for Al-Shabab was against U.S. law as well as support for a terrorist group.

In their petition to the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, attorneys for Ali and Hassan presented multiple arguments, including the contention that U.S. District Judge Michael Davis should have removed himself from the case after Ali was jailed for refusing to stand and was cited for contempt of court. They also objected to comments Davis made in a prior case in which he said the U.S. government “has done an admirable job at investigating and prosecuting all the individuals that were involved in these terrorism activities.” The women argued that the statement showed that Davis was predisposed to rule against them. The panel of judges disagreed, saying Davis’ statement “shows neither extreme favoritism nor antagonism. It merely reflects the court’s view of cases over which it presided.”

Ali and Hassan also argued that Al-Shabab was illegally designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government, and that electronic surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was unconstitutional because the government lacked probable cause to make the recordings. The court rejected the argument, saying “we have no problem concluding that probable cause under FISA existed.”

Ali and Hassan also argued that they should have been tried separately because of different evidence presented against each of them, and because Ali’s refusal to stand may have unfairly prejudiced the jury against Hassan. The court reasoned that the jury would be able to distinguish between the evidence and the defendants.

“Although the trial lasted 10 days, it focused on the Government’s straightforward theory that Ali and Hassan took part on a scheme to funnel money to Al-Shabab,” the court ruled.

The convictions are part of a federal investigation in which U.S. authorities sought to shut down a recruiting effort that lured more than 20 young men to Somalia, several of whom died fighting or in suicide bombings. Seven Somali-American men currently stand charged in federal court in Minneapolis with conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

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