Three of the five men convicted of plotting a terrorist attack on Fort Dix were sentenced to life in prison yesterday, and two of them were given an additional 30 years for gun charges.
All three of the Duka brothers - Dritan, Eljvir and Shain - vociferously proclaimed their innocence before their sentences were announced.
At the end of his statement, Eljvir Duka, 25, turned toward his large family, seated in the gallery, and urged them to "be patient, don't worry."
"Being in prison and knowing you're innocent is a great feeling in the sight of God," he said. "The government knows what they did."
District Court Judge Robert B. Kugler noted that the defendants showed no remorse for their actions, and said "a harsh, punitive sentence is necessary."
"I don't impose these sentences lightly. I see the family members . . . I see the heartache," he said. "But I have to balance that against what they did. . . . I'm convinced of their guilt."
In December, a jury convicted the Duka brothers and two other defendants, Mohamad Shnewer and Serdar Tatar, of conspiracy to kill U.S. soldiers. The jurors acquitted the men of attempted murder.
Shnewer and Tatar are scheduled to be sentenced today. They also face possible life terms.
All five are Muslims born overseas, but raised primarily in Cherry Hill. The case had been one of the country's most noted instances of what authorities have termed homegrown terrorism.
Prosecutors called the arrests a success of the FBI's tactic of discovering plots in their earliest stages and disrupting them before they could come to fruition.
They said the men, inspired largely by watching violent jihadist videos downloaded from the Internet, had planned to use a pizza delivery pass to get on the Army base and open fire on soldiers.
All five were arrested in May 2007, on the day when Dritan and Shain Duka attempted to buy machine guns from a government informant. Dritan, 30, and Shain Duka, 28, were given an additional 30 years in prison for a gun charge related to that attempted purchase.
The case was built largely on the work of two informants who infiltrated the group and recorded hundreds of hours of conversations.
The defense argued that the informants entrapped the men in a phony conspiracy, goading them into making inflammatory statements about the government and pushing them to make half-hearted plans for an attack they never intended to carry out.
The Duka brothers all cited examples from their recorded conversations that they said proved their innocence. Dritan Duke spoke in a rapid-fire cadence for nearly 30 minutes, while reading off a pile of yellow legal pad sheets.
"This case was nothing more than a conspiracy that was formed against us by the government," he said.
None of the defendants took the stand at trial.
In emotional statements yesterday, Duka family members also pleaded the innocence of the three brothers, saying the case was full of innuendo, not hard evidence.
"Prove it. What are intentions?" said their father, Ferik Duka. "Because if they are terrorists, I swear to God I will say it now, they are not my sons."
Dritan Duka's 11-year-old daughter, Lejla, the oldest of his five children, also spoke, saying that she would dedicate herself to becoming a lawyer and helping the oppressed.
"No matter what happens today, I know they will always be innocent in my heart," she said.
After the hearings, acting U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra said appropriate punishments had been meted out to "dangerous men" intent on killing to make a political statement.
In the recorded conversations, played throughout the eight-week trial, the defendants made dozens of statements about striking back at the United States and voiced their frustrations at the plight of Muslims worldwide.
If the FBI hadn't stopped the men, "we would have been attending funerals" of soldiers, Marra said.
Defense attorneys for the Duka brothers all said they would appeal.
The length of the Dukas' prison terms depended largely on whether the judge granted what is known as a "terrorism enhancement" under the federal sentencing guidelines.
The enhancement bumps up a defendant's potential sentence.
The guidelines proscribe a numerical figure for each defendant. With the terrorism enhancement and second bump for targeting federal employees, the Dukas' numbers came to 51.
"To put this in perspective . . . the highest number on the chart is 43," Kugler said. "Fifty-one is unprecedented."
The brothers, all born in Macedonia in the former Yugoslavia, came here illegally as children with their parents. Ferik Duka spoke of growing up in a Communist country and coming to America for a better life.
"I still consider this a great country," he said.
The family settled initially in Brooklyn, before moving to Cherry Hill. All three brothers dropped out of school to help support the family - Dritan Duka when he was 13 because his father had been injured in a car crash, his attorney said.
The brothers all had brushes with the law and used drugs through their teens and early 20s, before discovering their religion, Islam.
"When they found their religion they thought and still feel they found the keys to their happiness," said Dritan Duka's attorney, Michael Huff.
While prosecutors were arguing for life sentences, Kugler engaged them in a dialogue about the unusually lengthy terms in a case where no one was harmed.
"We are saying to them, 'We are going to treat you more harshly than a murderer,' " Kugler said. "Is that good policy?"
Deputy U.S. Attorney William Fitzpatrick said it was.
"These men do not deserve leniency because of the good work of the FBI," he said. "They should not receive some benefit because there are not some dead soldiers lying on the ground."
"Is this crime so serious that we abandon any thoughts of rehabilitation?" Kugler then asked, during Dritan Duka's sentencing.
"The risk is not worth the potential for him to change," Fitzpatrick said.
A Fort Dix Five Chronology
Jan. 31, 2006: A clerk alerted the FBI about a "disturbing" video he had been asked to copy onto a DVD. The video showed 10 young men in their early 20s shooting assault weapons at a firing range earlier that month. The group called for jihad (a holy war) and shouted in Arabic "Allah Akbar" (God is great).
March 2006: An FBI informant infiltrated the group by developing a relationship with Mohamad Shnewer.
Aug. 1, 2 and 5, 2006: Shnewer told the first informant that he, Serdar Tatar, Dritan Duka, Eljvir Duka, Shain Duka and others were planning to attack a U.S. military base, and Shnewer specifically named Fort Dix, explaining that they could kill at least 100 soldiers by using rocket-propelled grenades.
Jan. 31-Feb. 1, 2007: Law enforcement officers observed members of the group going in and out of Dritan Duka's residence in Cherry Hill, at times carrying dark-colored, rifle-style bags. In conversations taped by the second informant, several members were heard testing the action on the weapons.
Feb. 2, 2007: Law enforcement officials observed several members of the group firing weapons at the same firearms range in the Poconos they had used in an earlier video.
March 28-April 27, 2007: In various conversations and meetings recorded by both informants, members of the group discussed the types of weapons they needed, how much they would cost and when they would be delivered.
May 2007: Dritan and Shain Duka were arrested at a Cherry Hill apartment when they arrive to buy weapons. Eljvir Duka is arrested later at the same location; Shnewer is arrested at the Philadelphia airport while working as a taxi cab driver. Tatar is arrested at his home in Northeast Philadelphia.
December 2008: The members of the Fort Dix Five were found guilty of conspiracy to kill U.S. soldiers; they are acquitted of attempted-murder charges.
April 29: Dritan Duka and Shain Duka were sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison. Eljvir Duka was sentenced to life in prison.
–AP, staff reports