Zayead Hajaig

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Press Association, UK December 9, 2005, Friday

A British trainee pilot at the heart of a United States terror alert today successfully challenged the length of his jail sentence for obtaining a bogus passport.

Three Court of Appeal judges in London reduced the 12-month term handed out in the case of Zayead Hajaig, 36, from Ilford, Essex, to eight months.

They ruled that a sentence of a year would be appropriate if such an offence was committed now - following the events of 911 - but "not appropriate in a case dating back to 1997".

Mr Justice Gray, sitting with Lord Justice Waller and Sir Richard Curtis, said the sentencing judge at London's Snaresbrook Crown Court "fell into error" when he jailed Hajaig for a year on October 14.

The father of three used the passport to pursue his "dream" to get round visa restrictions and fly commercial planes in America.

At the Crown Court, Judge David Richardson told him: "I make it clear there is no evidence whatever before the court to suggest for a moment that you have had any terrorist connections."

He accepted that Hajaig, who admitted one count of dishonestly obtaining a UK passport by deception between January 29 and February 6, 1997, was "genuinely training to be a pilot".

The Crown Court heard that earlier this year Hajaig aroused suspicion when he tried to persuade instructors to falsify qualifications that could have put him at the controls of passenger jets.

The FBI was alerted, but an attempt to catch him failed when he learned they were on his trail.

He promptly used the false passport to flee to Britain, "terrified" that if he was caught he would end up in Guantanamo Bay.

Once back in the UK he eventually contacted Scotland Yard anti-terrorist branch officers and was finally arrested in connection with the passport matter.

The Crown Court heard that American authorities also placed him on an international "no fly" list, scrapped his light aircraft pilot's licence and rescinded all his qualifications.

Reducing the jail term today, Mr Justice Gray said it was clear that the sentencing judge had in mind that the 1997 offence was committed when the "world was a different place".

Handing down the sentence, the judge told Hajaig that "even then in 1997, to obtain a passport by deception in circumstances such as these is so serious that a custodial sentence is inevitable".

Hajaig, born in Nigeria to Armenian parents and of previous good character, was present in the dock of the court today when it was argued on his behalf that the 12 months was "manifestly excessive".

The appeal judges, who rejected a claim that the circumstances were so exceptional as to justify a suspended sentence, heard that the case had had a "devastating" effect on Hajaig and his family and his financial circumstances were now "dire".

Mr Justice Gray said it was clear that those who dishonestly obtained a false passport "can expect to receive sentences at least as long as, and often longer, than the sentence in the present case".

However, it was "right to say" that his offence was committed in 1997 before "international events".

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