8th Circuit upholds convictions, sentences of Minnesota women who raised funds for al-Shabab

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MINNEAPOLIS — A federal appeals court upheld the convictions and prison sentences Tuesday for two Minnesota women found guilty of conspiring to funnel money to a terror group in Somalia despite claiming they were collecting funds and clothing for the poor.

Amina Farah Ali, 39, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan, 68, were convicted in 2011 on one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization, after prosecutors told jurors the women were part of a "deadly pipeline" that routed money and fighters to al-Shabab.

Ali also was found guilty of 12 counts of providing such support and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Hassan was convicted of two additional counts of lying to the FBI and received a 10-year sentence.

Defense attorneys appealed on several grounds. Among them, they argued that U.S. District Judge Michael Davis should have recused himself because he made several statements suggesting he equated fundamentalist Islam with terrorism and was prejudiced. A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed.

"This assertion is baseless," the judges wrote. For example, during sentencing, Davis asked the women questions about the meaning of jihad and al-Shabab's strict interpretation of Islam.

"Plucked from context, some of these questions may appear unconventional," the judges wrote. "However, rather than showing bias or partiality, when viewed in context, these questions demonstrate that the court sought to comprehend Ali's understanding of al Shabaab's goals and actions, a legitimate topic for a sentencing court to explore" in a case of this nature.

Randolph Daar, an attorney for Hassan, said he was disappointed in the decision. He hadn't yet talked with his client to determine whether they will appeal.

The women, both U.S. citizens of Somali descent, were among more than 20 people charged in Minnesota's long-running federal investigations into recruiting and financing for al-Shabab, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group. Investigators believe more than 22 men left Minnesota to join al-Shabab since 2007.

Prosecutors said the women went door-to-door in the name of charity and held religious teleconferences to solicit donations, which they then routed to the fighters.

Defense attorneys painted the women as humanitarians who gave money to orphans and the poor, as well as to a group fighting to rid Somalia of foreign troops.

During the trial, Davis held Ali in contempt 20 times when she refused to stand for the court, citing her religious beliefs. Defense attorneys pointed to that as another reason for Davis to recuse himself. But the appellate court said Davis gave Ali a chance to explain herself, and the ensuing discussion shows the nature of the disagreement, not bias on Davis' part.

Defense attorneys also argued that evidence obtained by wiretap violated the Constitution, the women's trials should have been separated and that their sentences were unreasonable and enhancements that allowed for longer sentences should not have been applied.

The appeals court judges disagreed.

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