A year after accusing a Tunisian man of being linked to a Canadian plot to derail a train and of coming to the United States to develop a terror network, Manhattan federal prosecutors have offered to let him plead to charges that don't involve terrorism at all.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara told U.S. District Judge Miriam Cedarbaum Tuesday that Ahmed Abassi, 27, facing 50 years in prison under the original charges, would face a maximum of 6 years under the deal, and would not have to admit any terror link.
The prosecutor also said that without an "enhancement" based on a finding that the case was tied to terrorism, federal guidelines call for Abassi -- who has been jailed for a year -- to serve less than 6 months.
Ferrara told the judge that prosecutors still haven't made a final decision on whether to ask for that finding, but "as of now the government does not intend to seek the enhancement."
Abassi was charged last April with two counts of lying in visa applications to "facilitate an act of international terrorism." Each charge carried up to 25 years in prison.
Prosecutors alleged that after arriving in the United States last March he had met with Chiheb Esseghaier, the Tunisian charged in Canada with the train plot, and had "previously radicalized" Esseghaier.
Prosecutors also alleged that in conversations monitored by an undercover agent, Abassi also had discussed using bacteria to contaminate air and water supplies and kill up to 100,000 people.
In a news release last year, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said, "Ahmed Abassi had an evil purpose for seeking to remain in the United States -- to commit acts of terror and develop a network of terrorists here, and to use this country as a base to support the efforts of terrorists internationally."
Bharara's official spokesman had no comment Tuesday on why the office is now willing to accept a plea that doesn't involve terrorism.
Under the offer outlined by Ferrara, Abassi would plead to making false statements, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 1 year in prison, and attempting to possess an identification document with intent to defraud the United States, with a 5-year maximum.
Sabrina Shroff, Abassi's lawyer, said he is still considering the plea offer, which would require that Abassi be deported when released from jail.
She told Cedarbaum that tapes suggest that the government undercover agent lured Abassi to the United States by suggesting it would help him get a visa to reunite with his family in Canada -- not for the purpose of plotting terrorism.
Shroff said Abassi is still concerned that the government may urge Cedarbaum to sentence him as if he is a terrorist, which could lead to a 6-year term. So far, she said, prosecutors have refused to agree to let her question the undercover if they take that step.
She told the judge that prosecutors hoped Abassi would make the "case of the century" but he had never agreed to any concrete terror plot. "This is a serious decision because he has fair defenses to the charges," she said.
Cedarbaum gave Abassi a week to think about the deal, and set another hearing for May 7.