Suspected al-Qaeda leader Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, who plunged a comb into the eye of a jail guard in 2000 while awaiting trial in New York on terrorism charges, was resentenced today to life in prison.
Salim, 52, a Sudanese-born Iraqi, pleaded guilty to stabbing officer Louis Pepe with a plastic comb on Nov. 1, 2000, as part of a larger plot to attack his lawyers and force a judge to assign him new counsel. At the time, he was awaiting trial as an alleged planner of a terrorist conspiracy that included the 1998 terror attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts in New York previously sentenced Pepe to 32 years in prison in 2004. A federal appeals court overturned that sentence in 2008, ruling that Batts erred when she concluded Salim’s crime didn’t meet the legal standard for terrorism. The appeals court said a federal sentencing guideline recommended a longer term based on Salim’s actions.
“I am not a criminal, I am not a terrorist,” Salim told the judge today before Batts imposed her sentence. “I have never been in court, never been in prison. I never did a crime in all my life.”
Salim, who is serving his term at the federal supermaximum- security penitentiary in Florence, Colorado, wasn’t present in the courtroom and watched the proceeding from a closed-circuit television hookup from a conference room in the prison.
Speaking in English and in Arabic, Salim said today he believed his original court-appointed lawyers were working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In reference to the attack, Salim said, “I became not myself”
“I was 100 percent sure since if I went to trial I would be convicted of crimes I did not do, so I accepted less damages,” Salim said. “I accepted to plead guilty. So if the victim wants to take my eye, let him take my eye. If the victim wants to take my hand, let him take my hand. I am not a criminal, this is not my behavior.”
Salim’s lawyer Richard Lind called his client’s crimes “despicable” and asked Batts for leniency. Lind argued against a life prison term, saying that the original 32-year sentence was sufficient and that Salim suffers from asthma and kidney disease.
Batts said “the cold immediacy of Salim’s attack was appalling.” She said a term longer than the one she first imposed was warranted because the crime was “unusually cruel, brutal and gratuitous.”
Pepe was brain-damaged and lost his left eye in the attack at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. In the courtroom today, he stared at a large TV monitor that showed Salim. Pepe spoke about himself in the third person.
“Hi Salim, how are you doing?” Pepe said. “Can you see me? You look better than ever. Well, Pepe looks pretty bad now. I can’t talk any more, or walk or anything. That’s what you did, Salim. Now I got nobody anymore.”
According to testimony at a pre-sentencing hearing held by Batts in 2002, witnesses said that Salim had selected Pepe because of the kindness he’d shown prisoners.
“I know where you want to go, you want to be martyr,” Pepe said. “You want to go martyr. You know where you’re going? You not going martyr. You are going to hell, that’s where you’re going Salim.”
Bin Laden Associate
At the 2001 trial of four men accused in the embassy bombings, al-Qaeda founding member Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl testified that Salim advised Osama bin Laden and served on al-Qaeda’s ruling council. He approved the destruction of U.S. military property, even if civilians were nearby, al-Fadl testified.
The four men, including Salim’s cellmate at the time of the stabbing, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, were convicted and sentenced to life terms.
Salim, who was educated as an electrical engineer, pleaded guilty in April 2002 to conspiracy and the attempted murder of Pepe. He still faces criminal charges that he conspired with bin Laden in a global plot to attack U.S. nationals.
Prosecutors said Salim planned the attack for at least five months while being held at the federal jail in Lower Manhattan on the embassy bombings case. He collected packets of hot sauce from the jail commissary and fashioned a makeshift knife made out of a plastic comb sharpened in his cement cell, the U.S. said.
Salim also recruited Mohamed to help him carry out the attack, the U.S. said.
Hot Sauce, Comb
As Pepe escorted him to his cell for a meeting with lawyers, Salim, aided by Mohamed, knocked Pepe down, blinded him with hot sauce and drove the comb through the guard’s eye and into his brain.
The U.S. argued Salim’s crimes deserved an enhancement for terrorism because he was attempting to coerce the federal judge presiding over the embassy case to assign new lawyers. That judge had previously rejected Salim’s requests.
“What Salim did stands alone as a crime that warrants a life sentence,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Kolodner said today. “He destroyed a man’s life and attempted to undermine the federal judicial system.”
The case is U.S. v. Salim, 01-CR-0002, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).