July 15, 2014 / 12:47 AM / 5 years ago

U.S. pushes for prison for Tunisian accused of train plot link

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors pushed Monday for a hefty sentence for a Tunisian man accused of ties to an unsuccessful plot to derail a Canada-U.S. passenger train who agreed last month to a plea deal that included no terrorism charges.

Ahmed Abassi, 27, faces sentencing by a federal judge in New York on Wednesday after previously pleading guilty to lying to immigration authorities about his occupation upon entering the United States last year.

Abassi’s lawyer asked U.S. District Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum to sentence him to time served, representing the period Abassi has spent in custody following his arrest in April 2013.

Prosecutors in a court filing acknowledged that Abassi faces no more than six months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. But they argued for a longer sentence, saying evidence showed that Abassi “was far more - and far more dangerous - than simply an immigration fraudster.”

Abassi’s lawyer Sabrina Shroff pushed back in a court filing on Monday, writing that Abassi “steadfastly refused” to commit an act of terrorism.

“If Ahmed was really such an extremist... Ahmed would have acted, and this would be a terrorism case,” Shroff wrote. “It is not, and the Court should not treat it like one for sentencing purposes.”

Charges against Abassi were unsealed in May 2013. Prosecutors then said he had discussed various plots with Chiheb Esseghaier, another Tunisian arrested in Canada.

U.S. officials have said Esseghaier had a plan that involved blowing up a trestle on Canada’s side of the border as the Maple Leaf, Amtrak’s daily connection between Toronto and New York City, passed over it.

In Monday’s filing, prosecutors said in early 2013, Abassi, who had been living with his wife in Canada, went to Tunisia to visit family. While there, Canadian authorities revoked his visa because of the Esseghaier probe without telling him the real reason, prosecutors said.

An undercover FBI agent claiming to own a U.S. real estate company called Abassi in Canada and invited him to the United States, saying he could help get a visa, prosecutors said.

Upon arriving in New York in March 2013, U.S. immigration authorities working with the FBI, began questioning Abassi, who told them he planned to work for the agent’s real estate company, a statement that prosecutors call false.

For the next few weeks, Abassi lived for free in an apartment the agent provided, meeting frequently with him or Esseghaier, who was under surveillance.

While prosecutors say Abassi “repeatedly and flatly refused” to assist Esseghaier in a terrorist attack, his conversations “revealed dangerous, extremist views” and suggested his refusal was “for the wrong reasons.”

Prosecutors said the conversations revealed Abassi hoped to recruit people to send money to support Nusrah Front in Syria, a group Washington calls a terrorist organization closely aligned with al Qaeda.

The conversations also suggest Abassi was not opposed to attacking Americans, but thought such attacks were only worth the risk if they resulted in a large number of casualties, prosecutors said.

Additional reporting by Bernard Vaughan in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Eric Walsh

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