Walker charged with conspiracy to kill civilians

Californian avoids treason count, chance of death penalty

Trial to be in civilian court

January 16, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - John Walker Lindh, the American captured with Taliban forces in Afghanistan, was charged yesterday in a civilian court with conspiring to kill U.S. citizens and could face life in prison if convicted.

The 20-year-old Californian was not accused of treason, a crime that carries the death penalty and is difficult to prove because it requires a confession in open court or the testimony of two witnesses. Attorney General John Ashcroft left open the possibility that additional charges could be filed against Walker as authorities learn more about his activities.

President Bush had opposed trying Walker in a military court, according to a senior administration official.

The criminal complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., alleges that Walker knew as early as June that members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida group had been dispatched to the United States on a suicide mission and that he had met with bin Laden on one occasion, when the terrorist leader thanked Walker "for taking part in jihad."

"We have not overlooked attacks on America when they are made by foreign nationals," Ashcroft said of Walker, who surrendered with Taliban forces near Mazar-e Sharif in November. "We cannot overlook attacks on America when they come from United States citizens."

Walker, who uses his mother's name, was also accused on two other counts - aiding terrorist groups and engaging in forbidden business with the Taliban. He could be sentenced to 10-year terms on each charge if convicted.

The charges are based on Walker's statements during lengthy interrogations by U.S. officials, which began Dec. 9 aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan in the Arabian Sea, according to Ashcroft, who said Walker waived his right to an attorney.

Military officials are in the process of handing Walker over to the FBI to await arraignment, Ashcroft said.

Walker's parents have maintained that their son, who converted to Islam at age 16 and traveled alone to Yemen to study the religion and Arabic, was confused and brainwashed by al-Qaida. His parents could not be reached for comment yesterday.

George C. Harris, an attorney representing Walker's parents, said that despite repeated attempts, lawyers and family have not been given access to Walker.

Harris said he does not believe Walker has been told that his parents have retained lawyers who are working on his behalf. He said the government should respect Walker's presumption of innocence and stop fueling public speculation.

The complaint provides no clear evidence that Walker fought against American troops but does contain information about a prisoner uprising at a Northern Alliance compound near Mazar-e Sharif in which a CIA agent was killed. Walker, who had been captured with other Taliban fighters by the Northern Alliance, was being held at the compound.

He was interrogated Nov. 25 by two CIA agents, Johnny Michael Spann and an unidentified agent; part of the session was videotaped by a German film crew. According to the complaint, Walker told the agents he was from Pakistan. A videotape of the interview shows Walker refusing to answer Spann's questions.

Neither agent appears to have realized Walker was American. Walker told officials he was then taken outside to a lawn area where prisoners who had finished being interviewed were waiting.

A short time later, Walker told officials, he heard shots and screaming coming from the basement area of the compound. He said he tried to run but was shot in the leg and collapsed in the yard.

Inside, according to the complaint, a mass of prisoners converged on Spann and killed him.

Walker told officials that he did not see what had happened to the agents and had remained in the yard until "his comrades" brought him into the basement. Several days later, the group surrendered to the Red Cross, which began taking sick and wounded to hospitals near Mazar-e Sharif.

Ashcroft, explaining the most serious charge against Walker, said he "had knowledge of the American forces in the theater ... and knew that participants in the conflict were not limited to ... members of the Northern Alliance.

"We may never know why he turned his back on our country and our values, but we cannot ignore that he did," Ashcroft said. "Youth is not absolution for treachery, and personal self-discovery is not an excuse to take up arms against your country."

In October 2000, Walker left the school he was attending in Yemen for Pakistan, where the complaint says he continued his studies until he entered a paramilitary training camp run by the terrorist organization Harakat ul-Mujahedeen. While there, leaders of the group told him not to acknowledge being an American but to say he was from Ireland.

Last June, he left for Afghanistan and showed up at a Taliban training center, where he was sent to bin Laden's al-Qaida group, which included many Arabic speakers, because he did not speak any of the local languages, the complaint said.

He was then transferred to a camp where he learned "weapons training, explosives and battlefield combat" and where bin Laden gave lectures on politics three to five times, according to the complaint.

Sometime in the late summer or early fall, he was issued a rifle and grenades and was sent to the front lines to fight the Northern Alliance. He told officials he heard about the suicide terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 on the radio that day.

Yesterday, Ashcroft said Walker "chose to embrace fanatics, and his allegiance to them never faltered, not with the knowledge they had murdered thousands of his countrymen, not with the knowledge that they were engaged in a war with the United States, and not finally in the prison uprising that took the life of CIA agent Johnny Spann."

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said Bush was "pleased with the process put in place ... to review the [Walker] matter."

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