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By Richard Weizel
NEW HAVEN Conn. (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Wednesday sentenced two British nationals to far shorter prison sentences than prosecutors were seeking after the men pleaded guilty in December to supporting Muslim militants through print and online publications.
Babar Ahmad, 40, was sentenced to 12-1/2 years of a maximum 25 years for the crime, which prosecutors said included helping raise money and recruit fighters for the Taliban and al Qaeda before and after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
"It is my conclusion that the defendant does not present a risk of becoming involved in future crimes, and was never involved directly with al Qaeda," Judge Janet Hall said, explaining the lighter sentence.
"While these are serious crimes that raised funds for the Taliban and helped its ability to protect Osama Bin Laden and to carry out his Sept. 11 attacks, there must be a distinction made between providing material support and actually taking part in terrorism," Hall said.
The sentence will include the 10 years Ahmad already has served, she said.
A second man, 34-year-old Syed Talha Ahsan, who also pleaded guilty alongside Ahmad to supporting the Taliban through the publications was sentenced to time already served in Britain and the United States, which has amounted to more than eight years. He was facing a maximum sentence of 15 years.
Ahmad's attorneys had argued ahead of sentencing that while he tried to help Muslims under attack in Bosnia and Chechnya through his publications in the 1990s, he regretted supporting the Taliban and condemned the Sept. 11 attacks.
Ahmad told the court before his sentencing that he had acted "dumb and stupid".
"The world changed on 9/11," he told the judge, as family members stood behind him. "I was dumb and stupid in my denial of what al Qaeda had done. I admit to my crimes and have learned from them.”
The Taliban is listed by the United States as a terrorist organisation with links to al Qaeda.
The pair, extradited from Britain in 2012, were charged in Connecticut as authorities argued they used an Internet service provider in the state to run at least one of their websites.
Ahsan's younger brother criticized federal prosecutors outside the courtroom for pursuing the case so aggressively.
"The U.S. government must account for targeting my brother and Mr. Ahmad as dangerous terrorists, when in fact, they never harmed anyone," the man, Hanja Ahsan, said. "We are thankful the judge saw through this reckless persecution."
U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly said the case "sends a strong message that terrorism in any form will not be tolerated by the United States."
(Reporting by Rich Weizel; Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Eric Beech and Eric Walsh)