McLEAN, Virginia (AP) — A U.S. Army veteran accused of fighting alongside an al-Qaida-affiliated group of Syrian rebels has been released from jail following a secret plea deal.
Eric Harroun, 31, had been charged with providing material support to a terrorist group and faced up to life in prison.
But under a plea agreement entered Thursday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, Harroun pleaded guilty to an obscure law regulating export of munitions. He was sentenced to time served. He had been jailed since returning to the U.S. in March.
Prosecutors first accused Harroun of fighting alongside the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra, one of many Syrian rebel groups seeking to topple President Bashar Assad. But defense lawyers argued there was confusion about which rebel group Harroun had joined.
Court records document Thursday’s guilty plea and Harroun’s sentence of time served. But the plea agreement itself is sealed. The statement of facts, a detailed description of the illegal conduct supporting the guilty plea, is also under seal. The initial charges in March against Harroun and his subsequent indictment were both trumpeted in Justice Department press releases. No press release was issued about Harroun’s guilty plea.
The few documents that are not sealed indicated that federal sentencing guidelines call for a term of three to four years for Harroun, even under the reduced charge to which he pled. But prosecutors asked the judge to impose a lighter sentence for reasons that were not explained publicly.
Zach Terwilliger, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Alexandria, declined comment.
Geremy Kamens, the federal public defender representing Harroun, also declined comment.
Calls to Harroun and his family were not returned Friday.
When the charges were first filed, authorities said that Harroun himself admitted on multiple occasions that he had been fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra. As Harroun explained it to authorities, he had traveled to Syria with the intention of joining the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group that enjoys U.S. support. Harroun said he indeed started out fighting with the Free Syrian Army, but that in a hasty retreat from one battle he ended up in a truck with Jabhat al-Nusra. Harroun told authorities that al-Nusra initially treated him warily, but that he eventually gained their trust and joined them in several more battles, even using a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
But Kamens argued that Harroun, who spoke limited Arabic and was discharged from the Army after suffering a serious head injury, was simply confused about the rebel groups and mistakenly assumed he had joined up with al-Nusra when really he hadn’t. Kames said the government had no information corroborating Harroun’s mistaken confession, and fighting with the Free Syrian Army was not a crime.
Harroun’s case is the second time in the last 14 months that federal prosecutors filed a secret plea deal after initially bringing serious, high-profile charges against individuals implicated in the Syrian war. While Harroun was charged with supporting a terrorist arm of the Syrian rebels against Assad, the other case involved a U.S. car dealer — Syrian native Mohamad Soueid — who was sentenced to 18 months in prison for spying on Syrian dissidents in the U.S. on behalf of Assad.
At one point Soueid’s entire case file was retroactively placed under seal for a period of months, and Soueid’s guilty plea was also kept secret for several months. Soueid said he was motivated to support Assad out of a fear that radical Islamists would take his place.