Weeping and admitting that he failed his community, his family and his religion, the Queens imam caught up in the Najibullah Zazi terrorism investigation pleaded guilty Thursday to lying to the FBI and agreed to deportation from the United States for life.
Emerging from federal court in Brooklyn, Ahmad Wais Afzali, the imam and police informant who was recruited by the NYPD to reach out to longtime acquaintance Zazi, said that as a result of his efforts he would be separated from his family, exiled from his adopted country and become a marked man.
"I just signed my death sentence," Afzali told reporters. "I grew up here. I'm 39. I've been here since I was 9. I hardly speak another language. My family is here. My kids are American citizens. Helping the government - that's what you get."
Afzali was accused last September of tipping off Zazi - the Denver shuttle bus driver plotting a bomb attack on New York subways - that authorities were looking into his activities, and then lying to the FBI about what he had said. Afzali said he was never told to keep the interest of authorities secret.
Originally charged with four counts of lying to the FBI to obstruct a terrorism investigation, Afzali pleaded guilty to one count of lying without any terrorism element. That reduced his maximum prison exposure from 8 to 5 years, and his likely term under sentencing guidelines to between zero and six months.
During his 30-minute court appearance before U.S. District Judge Frederic Block, Afzali, wearing a white cotton skull cap and dabbing away tears with a tissue, said that he never thought Zazi and his associates, whom he had known since childhood, were involved in serious crimes.
He said he lied to the FBI because he panicked.
"I believed that the FBI was angry at me for calling Zazi," Afzali told the judge. ". . . My intention was not to protect Zazi, but to protect myself. . . . In doing so, I failed to live up to my obligation to this country, my community, my family and my religion. I am truly sorry."
A native Afghan, Afzali has been living in the United States as a legal permanent resident. He is married with two children. He will have 90 days after the end of any prison sentence to leave the country. He said he doesn't know where he'll go, and said his work with police would likely put his life in danger in Afghanistan.
His lawyer, Ron Kuby, said that a roadblock search of Zazi - not Afzali - tipped off the bomber that he had been exposed.
Prosecutors, who agreed not to ask for jail time for Afzali, had no comment on that characterization. Block scheduled sentencing for April 8.