A prominent Arab-American community leader with close ties to some of the Lackawanna Six defendants was sentenced to five years in federal prison Thursday for running a business that illegally sent millions of dollars to Yemen.
The sentencings of Mohamed T. Albanna, 55, and two of his relatives were held in a packed courtroom and under extreme security, with deputy marshals taking the highly unusual step of examining the identification of every spectator.
In an emotional speech before U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny, Albanna attempted to take all the blame for the criminal activity. He said his brother, Ali T. Elbaneh, and his nephew, Ali Albanna, acted at his direction.
"I take full responsibility," said Albanna, a father of nine who is the former vice president of the American Muslim Council of Western New York. "I am truly sorry."
Several women sitting behind Albanna bowed their heads and began to sob loudly immediately after his sentence was pronounced. Albanna also agreed to forfeit $100,000 to the federal government.
Elbaneh, 62, was sentenced to six months of home confinement for playing a very minor role in the business operation. He will have to forfeit $10,000. Ali Albanna, 33, was sentenced to four years and eight months for closely assisting his uncle, and he will forfeit $50,000.
The Yemenite men from Lackawanna ran an illegal, unlicensed money-transmitting company -- called a "hawala" in Arabic -- that sent $5.5 million from Buffalo to Yemen between 1999 and 2002, prosecutor Timothy C. Lynch said.
Authorities have never alleged that any of the money was used for terrorist purposes, but U.S. Attorney Terrence P. Flynn said that, because no proper records were kept, authorities have no way of knowing.
Flynn noted that, in early 2002, Lackawanna Six member Yahya Goba used Albanna's hawala to send money to Kamal Derwish, an alleged recruiter for the al-Qaida terrorist network, in Yemen.
"[Albanna] used false entries in his business records to conceal that transaction, and that concerns us very much," Flynn said.
The amount of money sent by Goba to Derwish was not disclosed Thursday.
Several Albanna supporters who attended the sentencings claimed Albanna was only targeted for prosecution because he is a prominent Arab-American leader, a charge that Flynn vehemently denied.
The three men were arrested in December 2002 after an investigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and the Western New York Terrorism Task Force. Hawala is an Arabic term meaning "trust," and such businesses have operated in the Middle East for centuries, authorities said. But government officials fear that some in the United States have used hawalas to funnel millions of dollars to terrorist groups in the Middle East over the past decade.
Albanna's business was one of several money-transmitting firms with Middle East ties that have been targeted in a government crackdown ordered by President Bush days after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, hawalas in New York City, Detroit and other cities have been shut down after criminal prosecutions.
Several Yemeni-Americans who were in court Thursday complained that they were closely inspected and required by federal marshals to show identification, a practice that rarely occurs in Buffalo's federal court. Bomb-sniffing dogs also were posted in the courthouse lobby.
"This is disgraceful," said Ellie Dorritie, a human rights activist and Albanna supporter. "No other minority group would be subjected to this or would stand for this. I've never seen this happen in this or any other courthouse."
U.S. Marshal Peter Lawrence said the security measures were a reaction to a flier that was circulated in the local Arab-American community, urging as many people as possible to attend the sentencings.
"We're not trying to pick on anybody," Lawrence said. "We're trying to have a safe and secure situation for everyone involved."
Defense attorneys Philip M. Marshall, Thomas Eoannou and Herbert Greenman asked Skretny for leniency, in consideration of good deeds the three men have done in the Yemeni-American community.
Eaonnou said Mohamed Albanna, his brother and other family members still suffer from a traumatizing incident that occurred during civil warfare in 1977.
"My client's father was a leader in their town in northern Yemen. He was coaxed out of their house and assassinated by radicals," said Eoannou, who represents Elbaneh. "Their mother was shot in the arm, and her arm had to be amputated."
Marshall said Mohamed Albanna is a patriotic U.S. citizen who has spent countless hours helping educational institutions and charities in Buffalo and Lackawanna.
The defense attorney was asked how people in those communities were able to come up with more than $5 million to send to Yemen.
"These are law-abiding people who worked in factories, in stores and any other place they can find legitimate employment," Marshall said. "They send money back to Yemen to help their families."
Mohamed Albanna is a close family friend to several members of the Lackawanna Six group. He also is the uncle of Jaber Elbaneh, who is missing in the Middle East and has been criminally charged with helping Lackawanna Six members to attend a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan.