Bin Laden aide sentenced to 32 years in prison for jail stabbing
Ex-prison guard, permanently injured, testifies at sentencing
From Phil Hirschkorn
NEW YORK (CNN) -- More than three years after he stabbed a jail guard in the eye, a top aide to Osama bin Laden who was in U.S. custody before the September 11 terrorist attacks was sentenced Monday to 32 years in prison.
U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts in Manhattan federal court sentenced Mamdouh Mahmud Salim for attempted murder. Salim pleaded guilty two years ago to the November 1, 2000, stabbing of corrections officer Louis Pepe with a comb sharpened into a shank.
Batts previously decided that Salim, 46, would face 17 to 22 years behind bars based on federal sentencing guidelines.
Last year she ruled against the government's contention that Salim's sentence should be considered terrorism-related because it was related to an effort to influence the outcome of a trial where he was one of the original defendants -- the trial of al Qaeda soldiers for the 1998 truck bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Prosecutors also pointed to threatening notes in Salim's cell as evidence of a hostage-taking plan.
The notes said, "We are the Muslims who were falsly (sic) accused of bombing the embassy in Africa. ... If the government worrys (sic) about the safty (sic) of its citizines (sic) it has to comply with all our demands."
Salim denied the Pepe assault was a plot to take hostages but said he had considered escaping to the United Nations and declaring refugee status.
Pepe, whose now-permanent injuries left him unable to speak for a majority of his 28-month hospital stay, missed two opportunities to testify against Salim, but he came to court Monday make a statement.
Pepe believed Salim deserved a longer sentence. "Forever, and they know that," he said in an interview.
Chain of events unclear
Prior to the attack Pepe, 46, had spent almost 15 years as a guard at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, the Manhattan federal jail, where he stood watch over the embassy bombing defendants and other terrorists, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombers.
Jail regulations called for terrorism suspects housed in the MCC's high-security wing, known as 10 South, to be escorted by three guards and shackled every time they entered or exited their cells.
That's not what happened when Pepe walked Salim from a recreation room where he was meeting his attorneys back to his cell to retrieve some papers. Courtoom testimony by those attorneys has indicated that Salim was not handcuffed.
What happened next is unclear. No videotape of the cell camera exists. MCC officials have said under oath that the videotape recorder was not working.
At some point, Salim, with assistance of his cellmate, Tanzania embassy bomber Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, surprised Pepe. After the assault, Pepe told his superior officer the inmates had "slipped the cuffs."
Salim has said he wanted to restrain Pepe, steal his keys, get back into the room with the attorneys, and assault them, so he could get new attorneys. Judges had denied Salim's request for new counsel. The embassy bombings conspiracy trial was due to begin in two months.
Pepe would not give up his keys, which could have unlocked the doors to all the inmates' cells. Salim told Mohamed to help restrain him -- spraying hot sauce in his eyes, tying him up with pillow case strips.
Salim then stabbed Pepe in the eye with the comb-knife. The weapon was lodged three inches into his skull. Eventually, other jail guards came to his rescue and subdued Salim and Mohamed. Somehow, Pepe walked out of the jail.
"He refused to be carried out of that unit," said his sister, Eileen Trotta. "He walked out. He wanted to show the other terrorists up on 10 South that they did not win."
Salim still facing conspiracy charges
Pepe's left eye is gone, the socket filled with gauze bandages that need to be changed daily by a nurse. He retains only 40 percent of the vision in his right eye. The right side of his body is largely paralyzed. He has recently regained the power to talk but needs speech therapy.
Since leaving the hospital, Pepe has lived with his parents in the modest house he grew up in Queens.
Salim, an electrical engineer from Sudan who was educated in Iraq, allegedly ran al Qaeda's financial affairs when the group's leader, Osama bin Laden, was based in Sudan in the early 1990s. Salim allegedly managed Wadi Aqiq, bin Laden's umbrella company that prosecutors allege procured communications equipment and conventional weapons.
Salim has said he cut ties with bin Laden in the mid-1990s, moved his family to Dubai, and launched Arabic religious radio stations in Sudan, Cyprus and Germany.
German investigators arrested Salim in September 1998 and extradited him after U.S. prosecutors guaranteed he would not face the death penalty.
Salim could still be sentenced to life in prison if he is convicted on the terror conspiracy charges. No trial date has been set.