MIAMI — Jose Padilla, the Brooklyn-born convert to Islam who was once accused by the government of plotting to detonate a "dirty bomb" in the United States, was sentenced on Tuesday to 17 years and four months in prison for his role in a conspiracy to help Islamic jihadist fighters abroad.
In explaining her decision, Judge Marcia G. Cooke of Federal District Court in Miami acknowledged the gravity of the crimes Mr. Padilla had committed. But she questioned the range and impact of the conspiracy, saying that there was no evidence linking the men to specific acts of terrorism anywhere or that their actions had resulted in death or injury to anyone.
She also noted that defendants in other well-known American terrorism cases had received life sentences for more heinous crimes, including Zacharias Moussaoui, who was convicted of conspiracy in connection with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Terry L. Nichols, who was convicted of murder in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Over the objections of prosecutors, Judge Cooke gave Mr. Padilla credit for time served during his 3 1/2-year detention in a South Carolina military brig following his arrest in 2002 on suspicions that he had been involved in the "dirty bomb" plot, allegations the government eventually discarded.
During that detention, Mr. Padilla was subjected to prolonged isolation and intensive interrogations in conditions that the judge called "harsh." The conditions, she said, "warrant consideration in the sentencing."
The sentences, following a three-month trial and a seven-day sentencing hearing, brought to a close the latest chapter in Mr. Padilla's extraordinary legal odyssey, which began with his arrest in May 2002 at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.
John Ashcroft, who was then the attorney general, announced Mr. Padilla's capture, saying that Mr. Padilla was part of an "unfolding terrorist plot to attack the United States by exploding a radioactive "dirty bomb" intended to cause "mass death and injury."
After his detention in South Carolina, Mr. Padilla was transferred to civilian custody in Miami in 2006 and added to the conspiracy case of two men of Middle Eastern descent, Ahmad Amin Hassoun, 45, a computer programmer of Palestinian descent, and Kifah Wael Jayyousi, 46, an engineer and school administrator originally from Jordan.
The three were accused of belonging to a North American terrorism support cell that provided money, recruits and supplies to Islamic extremists around the world.
Defense lawyers contended that the men were involved in humanitarian missions to help persecuted Muslims in places like Bosnia, Chechnya, Lebanon and Somalia.
The government's main evidence against Mr. Padilla, a former Chicago gang member with a lengthy criminal record, was an application form that prosecutors said he had filled out to attend an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in 2000.
Last August, a federal jury here in Miami convicted the three of conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim people in a foreign country, and of two lesser counts of material support.
On Tuesday, the judge also gave lenient prison sentences to Mr. Padilla's two co-defendants in the case, both of whom were, like Mr. Padilla, eligible for life in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. Mr. Hassoun, who recruited Mr. Padilla in a Broward County mosque, received 15 years and eight months in prison. Mr. Jayyousi, who was said to be a financier and propagandist for the cell, received 12 years and eight months.
Lawyers for the three men vowed to appeal the sentences and verdicts in the case but were in something of a victorious mood on Tuesday following the sentencings.
"It's definitely a defeat for the government," said Jeanne Baker, a lawyer for Mr. Hassoun.
William Swor, a lawyer for Mr. Jayyousi, criticized the length of his client's sentence. "The government has not made America safer nor promoted the rule of law," he said. "The government has just made America less free."
The government's lawyers did not speak to the media at the courthouse, but in a statement issued by the United States Attorneys Office in Miami, Kenneth L. Wainstein, assistant attorney general for national security, said the case had been brought to "a successful conclusion."
"The defendants' North American support cell has been dismantled and can no longer send money and jihadist recruits to conflicts overseas," Mr. Wainstein said.
But Mr. Padilla's mothers, Estela Lebron, said in comments to the media outside the courthouse that the Bush administration had waged a misguided prosecution against her son, calling it "insane."
"He's a human being and an American citizen," she told reporters. "he's not a terrorist." She added: "This is the way they're spending our money? 'Hello?' "
Mr. Padilla's detention became the centerpiece of a heated debate about the Bush administration's approach to prosecuting terrorism.
Administration officials had long maintained that some terrorism suspects could be properly handled only with military detention and trials by military commissions, not in the civilian justice system. But the verdict against Mr. Padilla seemed to undercut the administration's insistence and, in the eyes of critics of the administration's approach, proved that the criminal justice system should have handled the case in the first place.