6 years in prison for airing Hezbollah TV in NYC

A Pakistani immigrant described by prosecutors as “Hezbollah’s man in New York City” was sentenced Thursday to nearly six years in prison for airing the militant group’s television station.

U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman handed down a sentence of five years and nine months to Javed Iqbal, who had pleaded guilty in December to providing aid to a terrorist organization.

Iqbal, 45, admitted as part of a plea agreement that he used satellite dishes on his Staten Island home to distribute broadcasts of Al Manar, the TV station of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which has been fighting Israel since the early 1980s and has been branded by the U.S. government as a terrorist group.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Snyder said Iqbal recruited Al Manar, even traveling to “the belly of the beast, South Beirut,” to meet with its general manager.

“He was, in a very real sense, Hezbollah’s man in New York City,” Snyder said.

Snyder said Iqbal bought special satellite equipment to allow Al Manar to provide 24-hour programming from November 2005 through May 2006 so Hezbollah could use it to recruit followers and suicide bombers. Prosecutors said Iqbal’s business was paid $28,000 monthly for at least five months for airing the station to its North American customers.

Iqbal’s lawyer, Josh Dratel, said his client didn’t intend to aid Hezbollah as he tried to build his Brooklyn-based satellite television company, HDTV Limited.

Dratel called the airing of Al Manar “one discreet and narrow aspect” of an otherwise legitimate broadcasting company that also aired Christian programming, adult entertainment, a Jamaican channel and a gay and lesbian channel.

Before Iqbal was sentenced, he had Dratel read aloud a statement he had written. The statement said that he did not make any profit by airing Al Manar and that the resulting criminal charges had “hurt me financially, emotionally and physically.”

It asked for leniency from the judge.

In court papers, Dratel argued that Iqbal does not possess any ideology sympathetic to terrorism or other political doctrine, and he noted that one of HDTV’s partners was a city police officer.

“He is a businessman and sought to provide services he thought would generate profits,” Dratel wrote.

Iqbal, who has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years, will most likely be deported once he has completed his prison sentence, Dratel said. Iqbal, a former car mechanic, is married with five children and a sixth child due in July.

The August 2006 arrest of Iqbal initially sparked a First Amendment battle, with claims by his lawyers that he was no different from major news companies and Internet providers, some of which permit live streaming broadcasts of Al Manar. But the arguments were rejected by the court, and there was no mention of the First Amendment at the sentencing.

Hezbollah recently has taken a moderate tone before Lebanon’s June 7 parliamentary elections.