Monday, September 20, 2004 at 3:20 PM
The leader of Ohio's largest mosque has been sentenced to two months in jail and four months house arrest for lying about his links to terrorist groups. Palestinian-born Imam Fawaz Mohammed Damra was convicted in June of unlawfully obtaining U.S. citizenship a decade ago by providing false information on his application. Damra's conviction carries with it an automatic revoking of his American citizenship. But U.S. District Court Judge James Gwin has yet to rule on whether Damra may stay in the country while awaiting the decision of an appeals court. And leaders of the Islamic Center in Cleveland say it's still too soon to know whether they'll decide to retain Damra as their spiritual leader. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.
For over an hour, federal prosecutors argued that Fawaz Mohammed Damra should receive the maximum sentence of five years in federal prison for falsifying information on his application for citizenship. U.S. Attorney Cherie Kreigsman told Judge Gwin repeatedly that he should consider Damra's activities as a fundraiser for terror groups as part of the conduct that led to Damra's conviction on immigration charges. But Gwin pointed out that the charge was unlawful procurement of citizenship, not illegal fundraising. He denied the government's request, choosing instead to sentence Damra along guidelines for first-time offenders. U.S. Attorney Greg White says he accepts the judge's decision.
Greg White: The sentence wouldn't necesssarily deter those bent on raising funds in our country for the terrorism efforts across the world. But I think and I hope that that has an impact on how people address the honor of being a citizen in our country.
And it's Damra's status as a U.S. citizen that is still uncertain. Judge Gwin spent another half-hour listening to arguments from the prosecution that the imam's citizenship should be immediately revoked. Defense attorney John Cline countered that deportation or incarceration by U.S. immigration officials could damage Damra's right to an appeal.
John Cline: Judge Gwin intends to issue a ruling shortly on that - which should clarify things - and Mr. Damra intends to appeal.
Before his sentence was read, Fawaz Damra made a brief speech, the only time he spoke throughout his trial. As he did in 2001 after the release of Arabic-language videotapes made in the U.S. showing him haranguing a crowd of followers with attacks on Jews, Damra apologized for his actions. In a choked voice he admitted he made what he called 'foolish statements' against the Jewish people, statements for which he is now profoundly sorry.
Judge Gwin' sentence includes two months in a federal prison, to begin November 22nd when the Muslim holiday of Ramadan comes to an end. Damra is also to serve four months probation under house arrest, but he is permitted to attend religious services. Several supporters said they thought the sentence was just.
It was just and fair and thank God, it came as we wanted it to.
Couple of months, you know what I mean? Jail? It's nothing. Fair? It's fair, yeah.
But it's not clear whether Damra will be able to continue his leadership at the Cleveland mosque while he waits for an appeal. Haider Alawan is an elder at the Islamic Center.
Haider Alawan: We have a meeting in about a week. And this is a normal meeting that comes at the end of the month. It'll probably be next Thursday and I'm sure that'll come up on the agenda. To say anything before then would be premature.
Others in the Islamic community say they believe it will be difficult for members of the mosque to close ranks and heal the wounds of the past few years. Jad Humeidan is director of the Ohio Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Jad Humeidan: It's very sad to see this happen to the community. I think this will affect the community and I hope that the imam will be released from jail. And after that he will come back to his job at the Islamic Center and that the community will be able to move on.
Provided he's allowed to remain in the country, Damra's appeal could take months or years. And prosecutors are still hinting at other cases in which Fawaz Damra might be called to testify. In Akron, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.