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US man sentenced for plans to join Hezbollah in Syria

Family of Mohamad Hamdan says he was encouraged to make incriminating statements by FBI informant
Mohammad Hamdan (courtesy of Monira Baydoun)

A US resident was sentenced on Wednesday to five years and three months in prison for lying to a federal agent about plans to join Hezbollah in Syria. His lawyer and family argued that he was encouraged to make incriminating statements by an FBI informant.

Mohammad Hamdan was 21 years old when he was arrested in 2014 at the airport in Detroit. He was the victim of an opportunist informant who posed as his friend and suggested that he travel to Lebanon to enlist with Hezbollah and protect Shia shrines in Syria, his mother told MEE.

Hezbollah is designated as a terrorist organisation by the US State Department.

Hamdan was a permanent US resident who lived in Dearborn, Michigan - home to a large Arab American community. He will be deported to Lebanon after serving his sentence.

He pled guilty to lying to a federal agent in August, in a legal agreement between the prosecution and the defence that saw the more serious charge of attempted material support to terrorism dropped.

His mother, Monira Baydoun, stressed that he is innocent and that he lacked the desire and ability to join Hezbollah.

She said he had a dysfunctional lung, was not religiously devout and suffered from drug addiction. Hamdan had faced marijuana possession charges before his arrest.

Baydoun said her son was going through depression and a host of personal issues, including breaking up with his longtime girlfriend in 2014.

She told MEE that the FBI informant, a fellow immigrant, preyed on her son’s vulnerabilities and delivered Hamdan to the authorities in exchange for settling his immigration status.

“This is injustice,” she said, sounding shaken. “My son was framed. We never thought something like this would happen to us here. I swear to God my son has not done anything wrong to this country.”

She added that he took the plea deal out of fear of a longer sentence, not as validation to the charges.

“Hezbollah would not take someone like Hamada,” she continued, using her son’s nickname. “No one in our family back in Lebanon is connected to Hezbollah.”

Defendant speaks out

At the sentencing hearing, Hamdan appeared in good spirits as he kept glancing at his family members who sat in the back of the courtroom, smiling and nodding.

In his statement to the judge, he acknowledged that he made a mistake.

“What I’ve gone through over the past 33 months… It broke me,” he said, adding that he was a kid at the time of his arrest.

He apologised to his family, singling out his mother, who did not attend the hearing out of fear that she would become too emotional.

“All my mom wanted for me is to be educated. Instead, I did drugs,” he said. Hamdan’s sister was moved to tears by his words.

However, the defendant emphasised that he had no contact with Hezbollah and would not be able to fight in war.

“I’d be scared to hit my dog,” he said.

He blamed the informant, whom he identified as Rabih, for bragging about his Hezbollah connections and encouraging him to pursue the idea.

Judge Gerald Rosen wished Hamdan success after he leaves prison, describing him as a “troubled young man who was heading quickly in the wrong direction”.

Rosen stressed that the sentence was fair, and that Hamdan may have received more prison time had the prosecution not agreed to the plea deal. He then praised the government for showing compassion.

Ineffective methods

Defence attorney Art Weiss said the charges levelled against Hamdan may have been taken to trial under normal circumstances, but the current political climate, the rise of bigotry and fear of militant attacks make it difficult to get a fair and impartial jury.

Weiss told MEE outside the courtroom that the government’s methods “do not serve our national security interests”.

He said the US should dedicate its resources to finding individuals who pose a threat to the country, “rather than misguided teenagers on drugs like Hamada”.

When Hamdan pled guilty earlier this year, the FBI said the case highlighted the importance of its Joint Terrorism Task Force in Detroit.

“Here, Mr Hamdan lied to cover up his intent to travel overseas to fight with Hezbollah, a group that have been designated by the US government as a terrorist organisation,” US Attorney Barbara McQuade said in a statement in August.

Activists and legal experts have questioned the government's tactics in targeting young men to indict them on terrorism charges.

Another young man has been accused of a plot to shoot up a church in Detroit on behalf of the Islamic State group, but his lawyer says the FBI used an undercover agent to seduce and radicalise him.

Hamdan's father, Hassan Hamdan, said his son's ordeal was scripted by the government from the beginning to the end.

"They told the lie, and they believed it," he told MEE.