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Judge rejects plea from men who sought to join al Qaeda affiliate

By David Jones

NEWARK (Reuters) - A federal judge on Tuesday refused to overturn the prison sentences of two New Jersey men convicted on terrorism charges, rejecting the argument that the decision was tainted by the Boston Marathon bombing.

The two men, Mohamed Alessa, 23, and Carlos Almonte, 27, were sentenced on April 15 to 22 years and 20 years respectively after pleading guilty to conspiring to join al Shabaab, an Islamic insurgent group in Somalia with links to the al Qaeda terrorist network.

Lawyers for the men filed motions in April to overturn the sentences, arguing prosecutors learned of the Boston Marathon bombing during the sentencing hearing and changed their closing arguments, but failed to inform the defense of the attack.

Two ethnic Chechen Muslim brothers set off two bombs at the Boston Marathon on April 15, killing three people and injuring 264.

The defense team argued that prosecutors used inflammatory language invoking a potential threat to the U.S. homeland, when the case primarily involved a conspiracy to join an overseas network.

U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise, in an opinion filed on Tuesday, said defense attorneys did not thoroughly review the court transcript, which shows prosecutors actually began citing potential threats to facilities in the New York metropolitan area prior to the time when prosecutors were informed of the marathon bombing by a federal agent.

He also cited part of the pre-sentencing report where the defendants said they "looked forward to killing in the United States non-Muslims or Muslims who disagreed with them."

The judge also noted the defendants had waived their right to appeal the sentence under their plea agreement.

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman, declined to comment. Lawyers for the two defendants could not be reached for comment.

(Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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