Wednesday, July 5, 2006

"I love this country."

A sham-wedding planner nabbed by the terrorism task force is sentenced.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 5, 2006 at 4:00 AM

June 29th was sentencing day for Rafat Mawlawi, and the indicator was not good.

The Syrian-American "wedding planner" has been in prison for 15 months on immigration charges related to a scam to bring Middle Eastern men into the United States via sham marriages and engagements to Memphis women. On top of that, Mawlawi drew the attention of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, which seized pictures of Mawlawi shouldering a rocket launcher and a video of him preaching holy war to a roomful of mujahadeen. Mawlawi is an imam, or preacher.

Lorna McClusky, Mawlawi's attorney, entered the federal courtroom carrying a plastic bag containing civilian clothes for Mawlawi to slip into before the hearing began. But marshals told her that he would not be allowed to change and would have to make his appearance and hear his fate wearing his tan-colored prison-issued jumpsuit.

Outside U.S. district judge Daniel Breen's courtroom, Mawlawi's brother Nabil waited on a bench along with the prisoner's wife and four small children. For 15 months, Nabil has been raising his brother's children and five more of his own on the earnings from his sandwich shop in Bartlett.

At 2 p.m., the family entered the courtroom and sat on the wooden bench in the second row. Rafat Mawlawi sat at a table 15 feet away, mouthing words to them and blowing kisses to the children, who grinned back at him. Mrs. Mawlawi looked impassive beneath her headscarf.

FBI agent Robert Parker took the stand first to recount the search of Mawlawi's house near Craigmont High School on April 4, 2005. Assistant U.S. attorney Fred Godwin used a courtroom projector to show the photo of Mawlawi shouldering the rocket launcher. The picture was taken in Bosnia in 1996, a full five years before 9/11. Mawlawi was working for the Benevolence International Foundation, which the U.S. government has since identified as a terrorism support organization headed by Enaam Arnaout, a confidant of Osama bin Laden.

Breen said associating with Arnaout does not make Mawlawi a terrorist.

"I just don't see how you're connecting the dots," Breen said, although after some discussion he allowed Godwin to play the videotape of Mawlawi preaching to mujahadeen.

McClusky objected to no avail. In 1996, no one would have connected Mawlawi's macho posturing in Bosnia with terrorism, she suggested.

"It strikes me as a peculiar way to put religious beliefs in sentencing," she said.

Godwin countered that he was merely trying to show the judge who the defendant really is. A former police officer, the prosecutor said some people have a bad habit of always being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and eventually they face the consequences. Mawlawi was never charged with terrorism, however, and was instead facing 10 counts of immigration and weapons violations.

"This country is a welcoming country, but it needs to be done in an orderly manner," Godwin said.

The hearing had lasted more than an hour and the younger children were stretching out on the bench with their heads on Nabil's lap when Mawlawi got his chance to speak. He asked and was granted permission for McClusky to read aloud a letter from the children.

"If you let my dad free I promise you you will never see myself and my family in your court ever again," it said in part.

Speaking with a pronounced accent, Mawlawi said he had lived in the United States for more than 30 years and served honorably in the U.S. Navy. He had gone to Bosnia after the war was over to teach English. He had already pleaded guilty to organizing the marriage scam that involved, among others, singer Janet Netters Austin. He was not a terrorist and would not flee the country if he were freed. He had "suffered enough," he said, and needed to be home with his family. "I am proud to be American by choice," he said. "Your honor, I love this country."

Shortly before 4 p.m. Breen pronounced the sentence: 37 months in prison. With his plastic bag full of civilian clothes, Rafat Mawlawi was headed back to prison where he would spend the Fourth of July and most of the next two years.

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