By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Tunisian man accused of ties to an unsuccessful plot to derail a Canada-U.S. passenger train on Tuesday accepted a plea offer in federal court that includes no terrorism charges.
As part of the agreement, Ahmed Abassi pleaded guilty in New York to lying to immigration authorities about his occupation upon entering the United States last year.
The agreement with the office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara appeared to mark a significant shift from its earlier portrayal of Abassi as a radical seeking to "commit acts of terror and develop a network of terrorists here," as Bharara said in a statement last year announcing Abassi's indictment.
Abassi pleaded guilty to making false statements to immigration agents and falsely filling out a green card application, without any reference to terrorism. The counts carry a maximum combined sentence of six years, though federal sentencing guidelines would likely suggest a term of up to six months.
Abassi has already served more than a year in prison while awaiting trial. U.S. District Court Judge Miriam Cedarbaum, who can impose any sentence up to the maximum, scheduled sentencing for July.
Prosecutors could seek a terrorism enhancement under the sentencing guidelines, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara previously indicated they do not plan to do so.
The charges against Abassi were unsealed in May 2013. At the time, prosecutors said Abassi discussed various plots with Chiheb Esseghaier, another Tunisian arrested in Canada.
U.S. officials have said that Esseghaier had a plan that involved blowing up a trestle on Canada's side of the border as the Maple Leaf, Amtrak's daily connection between Toronto and New York City, passed over it.
An undercover law enforcement agent recorded them talking about using contaminants in the air or water to kill up to 100,000 people, according to prosecutors.
But Abassi's court-appointed defense lawyer, Sabrina Shroff, argued that Abassi was entrapped by the agent, who she said promised to help Abassi secure a visa to return to Canada where he had been studying.
At Tuesday's hearing, Abassi said he and his wife traveled to Tunisia to get married, but that he was barred from returning to Canada because authorities there said his student visa had been issued in error. His wife returned to Canada in the meantime.
After unsuccessfully trying to obtain a visa, Abassi said an acquaintance, Tamer, called him and suggested he travel to the United States first and apply for a Canadian visa.
Tamer, an undercover FBI agent, called Abassi, his parents and his wife repeatedly to convince them that Abassi should go to the United States, Abassi said. When he arrived, Abassi told immigration agents at a New York airport that he worked in real estate and then repeated the lie on his green card application, which he said he filled out with Tamer's help.
"My entire purpose was to return to Canada and reunite with my wife," he told Cedarbaum.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax, editing by G Crosse)