New York (CNN) -- A New York man accused in an alleged terrorist plot pleaded guilty Thursday to lying to federal agents.
Ahmad Wais Afzali, a Muslim cleric and funeral director from the New York borough of Queens, was one of the first people charged in what authorities have described as a plot to detonate bombs on New York subways.
Afzali was accused of lying about whether he tipped off suspect Najibullah Zazi that the FBI had been asking questions about his activities.
Zazi subsequently pleaded guilty to conspiring to detonate explosives in the United States.
On Thursday, Afzali told the court that police had asked him to help provide information about Zazi and two other suspects, Adis Medujanian, and Zarein Ahmedzay. He said he knew Zazi and Medujanian fairly well from when they were teenagers and attended his mosque for prayers and to play volleyball.
"The police interest in these men led me to believe that they were involved in some criminal activity, but I had no idea of its seriousness," Afzali said Thursday, at times choking up during his statement.
He said he called Zazi on September 11, 2009, a day after he was contacted by authorities.
"I told him that our phone call was being monitored. I told Zazi, 'Don't get involved in Afghanistan garbage and Iraq garbage, that's my advice to you.'"
"On September 13 ... I was interrogated by FBI agents for the first time. I believed that the FBI was angry at me for calling Zazi," he added. "When I was asked whether I had told Zazi about law enforcement being interested in him, I lied and said I did not. My intention was not to protect Zazi, but to protect myself."
He admitted to repeating the lie during another interview with prosecutors a few days later.
"In doing so, I failed to live up to my obligation to this country, my community, my family, and my religion. I am truly sorry."
Afzali's plea deal reduced the charge from lying to federal agents "during the course of a terror investigation" -- which carries a maximum sentence of eight years in prison. The basic charge of lying to feds carries a maximum sentence of five years.
His plea deal recommends that Afzali be sentenced anywhere from zero to six months in prison. His sentencing hearing was tentatively scheduled for April 8.
Under the terms of the agreement, Afzali agreed to leave the United States within 90 days of completing any sentence he receives.
Before entering his plea, the 38-year-old imam placed a scarf down on the floor outside the courtroom and prayed.
He later told reporters that he "just signed his death sentence" by accepting the plea deal, saying he didn't want to the leave the United States. Afzali is a native of Afghanistan, but has no idea where he will go upon leaving the United States
"I hardly speak my own language," he said.
Afzali also said he is concerned for his health; he has diabetes and is anemic, and said his wife has a pelvic tumor.
"I was helping the government and this is what I get," Afzali said.
The two others suspects in the case, Ahmedzay and Medunjanin, pleaded not guilty in February to new charges of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against persons or property in the United States, as well as several other counts. The two had previously faced lesser charges.
Prosecutors say the two 25-year-old U.S. citizens and residents of Queens conspired with Zazi "to attack the New York subway system in mid-September 2009."
CNN's Jennifer Rizzo contributed to this report.