WILMINGTON, Del. — A former Army captain who pleaded guilty to smuggling heroin into the U.S. while working as a military contractor in Afghanistan was sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in federal prison.
Saleem Akbar Sharif of Johns Island, S.C., a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute heroin. He faced a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison.
“I'm dedicated and committed to getting my life back on track,” Sharif, 36, told U.S. District Judge Richard Andrews before he was sentenced. “When I come back home, I'll be a better man.”
Sharif's public defender blamed his client's criminal conduct and the loss of his “moral center” on post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the violence that Sharif saw after being deployed to Iraq in 2004.
“I do believe he went into the Army one person and came out another,” federal public defender Edson Bostic said.
Among other things, the defense said Sharif struggled with the deaths of fellow soldiers and of Iraqi nationals with whom he worked closely, and with the personal conflict of being a practicing Muslim fighting for the United States in a Muslim country.
“That bond of brotherhood was quick to form,” Sharif said of Iraqis with whom he worked in an information operations unit, trying to gain public support for the U.S.-led coalition's mission.
Catherine Barber, a forensic psychologist hired by the defense, concluded that Sharif's PTSD was so severe that it diminished his mental capacity and impaired his ability to exercise sound reason and judgment, and to adequately distinguish between right and wrong.
“I believe at some point, I just stopped caring,” Sharif told the judge.
But prosecutors suggested that Sharif was motivated by profit.
They noted that after being honorably discharged in 2005, Sharif was able to try his hand at a water ice business in the Fort Hood area, took a job two years later as a contractor in Afghanistan, and led a sophisticated operation smuggling heroin into the U.S. in DVD cases.
“This was an extremely serious drug trafficking offense,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Kravetz, noting that Sharif pleaded guilty to smuggling more than five pounds of heroin, enough for tens of thousands of individual doses.
Kravetz told Andrews that a lengthy prison sentence for Sharif would send a message to American soldiers and contractors still overseas not to try their hand at drug smuggling.
While agreeing that Sharif suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, the judge said Sharif knew that what he was doing was wrong.
“The drug operation seems to be a carefully thought-out business venture,” said Andrews, adding that there was nothing in Sharif's one-year deployment to Iraq to distinguish his service from that of 1.6 million other Americans who have served there.