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Top Charge Gone From Alleged Synagogue Bomb Plot Case

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Ahmed Ferhani (L), 26, and Mohamed Mamdouh, 20, stand before a judge during their arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court May 12, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Lucas Jackson-Pool/Getty Images)

Ahmed Ferhani (L), 26, and Mohamed Mamdouh, 20, stand before a judge during their arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court May 12, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Lucas Jackson-Pool/Getty Images)

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NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – The top terrorism charge brought last month under a rarely used state law against two New York City immigrants in an alleged bomb plot has been dropped, authorities said Wednesday.

Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh pleaded not guilty Wednesday to lesser state charges including criminal possession of a weapon as a terror crime in a scheme to blow up city synagogues.

But a grand jury evidently rejected the initial top charge against the pair, second-degree conspiracy as a terror crime, which carried the potential for life in prison. The top charges now, including the weapons count, are punishable by up to 32 years behind bars; the men also still face a less serious terror conspiracy count and hate crime counts.

WCBS 880’s John Slattery reports: Ferhani, Mamdouh Plead Not Guilty

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. stressed Wednesday that the remaining charges still accuse the men of posing a legitimate threat to city’s Jewish community.

“I’m not certain what happened in the grand jury, but we’ll accept the fact that the possible sentence is 32 years,” Kelly said.

“The charges have dropped a significant level in this case,” Mamdouh’s lawyer, Aaron Mysliwiec, said in court.

Ferhani and Mamdouh were arrested on May 11 on charges they wanted to strike a synagogue to avenge mistreatment of Muslims around the world. An undercover officer who investigated them reported that Ferhani wanted to become a martyr, and wiretap recordings caught the men calling Jews “rats” and other names.

Authorities say Ferhani, 26, was nabbed in a sting buying guns, ammunition and an inert hand grenade on a Manhattan block. Mamdouh, a 20-year-old American citizen of Moroccan descent, was picked up a few blocks away.

Police say Ferhani also fantasized about blowing up a Queen’s church and the Empire State Building.

“The truth here is that my client has a significant psychiatric problem,” Elizabeth Fink, Ferhani’s attorney, told CBS 2’s John Slattery.

Fink says authorities knew he’d repeatedly been institutionalized for psychiatric problems and calls the case “bogus.”

Ferhani’s attorney says the initial arrest was made to look huge but the feds wouldn’t take the case.

“When the mayor decided to have a press conference, when [Ray] Kelly decided to have a press conference, they were being charged with highest level of terrorism,” said Fink. “The indictment is now for the fourth degree, not the first degree.”

“The charges have dropped a significant level in this case,” Mamdouh’s lawyer, Aaron Mysliwiec, said in court.

But the Manhattan district attorney says the men’s intentions amounted to an act of terrorism.

“A picture emerges from today’s indictment that describes how the defendants plotted to bomb synagogues in Manhattan in an effort to contribute to what they referred to as ‘the cause,”’ District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said in a statement. “Their desire to commit violent jihad against Jewish Americans is not only an act of terrorism, but also a hate crime. Any threats to the safety of New Yorkers will be addressed swiftly and aggressively by this office and our partners in the NYPD.”

The arrests were announced last month at a City Hall news conference where Kelly and Vance said they took the unusual step of prosecuting at the state level — using an obscure terrorism law passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — after the FBI was made aware of the investigation but decided not to get involved.

The FBI, a central player in past terror investigations, has declined comment.

But a law enforcement official, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, has told The Associated Press that the FBI had reservations about how the probe was conducted and concluded the allegations weren’t worthy of a federal terrorism case.

“This is a political case, brought by political people, for their own political purposes,” Fink said outside court.

Ferhani, who is unemployed, moved to the U.S. in 1995 from war-torn Algeria with his parents and claimed asylum, authorities said. He had been granted permanent resident status but is facing deportation.

Mamdouh, who is of Moroccan descent, immigrated with his family in 1999, officials said. His parents are now local business owners, a prior attorney said.

The defendants lived blocks away from each other in Queens.

“You will see that this case is bogus. … It’s total entrapment.” Fink said, adding that Ferhani’s intentions were “absolutely not” terrorism.

“The truth here is that our client has a significant psychological problem,” she said.

His lawyers didn’t specify the mental illness from which they said he suffered, but they said it was lifelong.

The defendants remain held without bail and are due back in court Sept. 20. They appeared in orange jail jumpsuits and said nothing except “not guilty,” during the brief hearing.

(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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