The director of advanced research at a Massachusetts biotechnology firm was sentenced on March 31 in federal court in Boston for obstructing an investigation into his efforts to acquire the deadly toxin ricin. Dr. Ishtiaq Ali Saaem, 37, a Bangladeshi national residing in Massachusetts, was sentenced to three years of probation, six months of which will be served on home confinement. Ali Saaem was also ordered to pay a fine of $5,500. The government recommended a sentence of one year in prison. In April 2021, Saaem pleaded guilty to one count of obstruction of justice.
“Dr. Ali Saaem showed callous disregard for public safety and federal authority,” said United States Attorney Rachael Rollins. “This prosecution sends a clear message that the attempted procurement of deadly weapons or toxins will be taken as a direct threat against the safety and security of American communities. Thanks to the swift action by authorities, no one was harmed.”
“There is serious cause for concern when anyone tries to acquire a deadly biological toxin such as ricin, but it’s even more troubling when they lie to us about it, like Dr. Ishtiaq Ali Saaem did,” said the FBI’s Special Agent in Charge of the Boston Division, Joseph Bonavolonta. “Today’s sentence should be a warning to others that you can’t obstruct a federal investigation and get away with it.”
Saaem held a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, resided in Massachusetts and worked as the director of advanced research at a biotechnology firm based in Massachusetts. Saaem became interested in acquiring ricin from castor beans as well as convallatoxin, a poison found in lily of the valley plants, after watching “Breaking Bad,” a popular television show. Saaem ordered 100 packets of castor beans online, each containing eight seeds. Saaem falsely told law enforcement agents that he purchased castor beans for planting at his apartment for decoration and that he had accidentally purchased 100 packets instead of one. After he spoke to agents, Saaem researched tasteless poisons that could be made at home.
During subsequent meetings with law enforcement, Saeem stated that his interest in buying castor beans related to an interest in gardening. He also made misleading statements about his knowledge of ricin.