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Al Qaeda militant-turned-witness released: U.S. court

By Basil Katz

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. man who aided al Qaeda and helped train the lead London suicide bomber whose attacks killed 52 people has been free for two years, released in virtual secret after cooperating with U.S. prosecutors, court documents show.

A naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan, Mohammed Junaid Babar, 35, once faced charges that could have led to a 70-year prison sentence, had he been convicted at trial.

But he walked free after less than five years in prison upon pleading guilty and becoming a star witness for British and American prosecutors.

Babar's release was kept quiet by the U.S. government and came as a surprise to many security experts.

His release was reported in Britain's Guardian newspaper over the weekend, citing U.S. court documents.

The documents, made public in January, show Babar was sentenced in December to time served by U.S. District Court Judge Victor Marrero and that he had already been released under unspecified conditions two years earlier.

At the hearing, Babar's defense attorney, Daniel Ollen, said Babar had been released more than two years earlier pending his sentencing.

Babar became a star witness when he helped investigators lock up militant plotters, including five men arrested in 2004 in Britain with explosive material.

He also testified in another trial in Canada, and shared valuable intelligence with authorities.

'UNIQUE' WITNESS

While the U.S. justice system often gives criminals lighter sentences in exchange for testifying against former cohorts, the practice is rare with suspects accused of serious terrorism offenses.

"Babar is unique because we don't have many cooperators," said Karen Greenberg, executive director of New York University School of Law's Center on Law and Security. "We don't really have another one in his category that we know of."

Babar was arrested in New York City in April 2004 and pleaded guilty to serious terrorism charges a few months later, when he struck a deal with U.S. prosecutors in Manhattan -- he would testify against other militants and they would recommend a lower sentence.

He admitted to setting up an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and helping some British militants he met there obtain materials that they planned to use in a bomb in Britain.

It was later discovered that Mohammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the July 7, 2005, suicide bomb attacks that killed 52 commuters on London's transport system, attended Babar's camp in Pakistan.

"Over the last six and a half years the level of assistance provided by Babar to both the United States government and foreign governments has been more than substantial. It has been extraordinary," Ollen quoted a government letter as saying, according to a court transcript.

Babar testified at a trial in London against men accused in March 2004 of plotting a bomb attack. The men had trained at Babar's camp, where he had taught them bomb-making skills. They were arrested in the so-called Operation Crevice.

In April, suspected militant Syed Hashmi pleaded guilty to terrorism charges after discovering Babar would have testified against him. Hashmi was later sentenced to 15 years in prison by a Manhattan federal court judge.

Babar must cooperate with investigators in future cases in exchange for remaining free but he has not been placed in a witness protection program, Ollen said.

(Reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Sandra Maler)

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