Ahmad Wais Afzali, the Queens imam and police informant caught up in the Najibullah Zazi subway bombing plot last year, was spared jail for lying to the FBI after telling a federal judge in Brooklyn he loved the United States and never intended to help the plotters.

"Honestly, your honor, it was never my intention to help those idiots for what they do in the name of Islam," Afzali, 38, a native of Afghanistan, told U.S. District Judge Fredric Block Thursday. " . . . I am not a bad man."

But while he escaped a jail term, under the terms of his plea agreement, Afzali, a legal permanent resident since childhood, will have to leave the country within 90 days and never return - separating him from his parents, his wife and his two children, both American citizens.

He has no idea yet where he will land but said he deeply regrets leaving the United States. He told Block he realized he might have received much harsher treatment in other countries, and warmly shook the hands of prosecutors at the sentencing's conclusion.

"The sad part is that I have to say goodbye to the only country I know," Afzali said afterward.

Afzali was recruited last fall by the NYPD to contact one-time Queens acquaintance Zazi, the Denver shuttle bus driver plotting the subway bombings, and help figure out what Zazi was up to.

He was then accused of tipping off Zazi that authorities were looking into his activities, and lying to the FBI about what he had said. Afzali said he was never told to keep authorities' interest secret, never realized he'd been thrust into the midst of a major terror investigation, and then lied because he became frightened.

After entering a plea to one count of lying to the FBI last month, he faced a maximum of 5 years in jail. Sentencing guidelines called for him to receive between 0 and 6 months.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

To the end, Afzali's role remained ambiguous.

Defense lawyer Ron Kuby told Block Afzali did nothing but try to help law enforcement and cautioned his old friend Zazi to keep his nose clean - but got caught in the middle of an interagency squabble between the FBI and the NYPD, and was punished for helping.

"He said, 'I will do what I can.' He did what the government wants everyone in his position to do," Kuby said.

Prosecutors did not urge Block to impose jail time, but Assistant U.S. Attorney James Loonam told the judge that Afzali was more aware than he was letting on. "What the defendant did was play both sides almost certainly without realizing the seriousness of his conduct," Loonam said.