Lindh tearfully apologizes, receives 20-year sentence

American admits aiding Taliban in Afghanistan

Must reveal what he knows

October 05, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - John Walker Lindh, the young Californian who took up arms to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan, was sentenced to 20 years in prison yesterday after he tearfully said he had made a grave mistake.

Repeatedly clenching his jaw to keep from crying, Lindh, 21, spoke clearly but with a faint foreign accent to U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III , as if English were not his native language.

"I want the court to know, and I want the American people to know that had I realized then what I know now about the Taliban, I would never have joined them," he said during a 20-minute statement, as his mother and sister sobbed from a bench behind him.

Lindh pleaded guilty in July to aiding the terror-sponsoring Taliban regime in a deal that spared him the threat of a life sentence.

Appearing thin in a baggy green prisoner jumpsuit, Lindh wore large glasses and smiled briefly at his parents as he entered the courtroom.

He said he had traveled to Afghanistan to fight in what he believed at the time was an "Islamic liberation movement" against the Northern Alliance and was not aware of the Taliban's relationship with Osama bin Laden, its terrorist ties or its repression of women.

"I understand why so many Americans were angry when I was first discovered in Afghanistan," he said.

"I realize many still are, but I hope in time that feeling will change."

Under the plea deal, the government dropped the charges against Lindh that directly involved terrorism, in exchange for his pledge to help U.S. intelligence and anti-terrorism efforts.

In his statement, Lindh condemned bin Laden and his tactics.

"Bin Laden's terrorist attacks," Lindh told the court, "are completely against Islam, completely contrary to the conventions of jihad and without any justification whatsoever."

The unusually long hearing - more than 2 1/2 hours - was filled with drama even though Lindh's sentence had been worked out in advance by his defense attorneys and prosecutors.

Ellis allowed Johnny Spann, the father of Johnny M. "Mike" Spann, a CIA officer who was killed in November during a prison uprising in Afghanistan, to address the court. The younger Spann had interrogated Lindh sometime before the uprising.

The judge cautioned Spann, though, that the government could not prove that Lindh had had anything to do with the death of his son.

Nevertheless, in an emotionally charged statement, Spann told Ellis, "I'm not saying you don't know how to do your job, but I don't think all the information has been considered. The punishment doesn't fit the crime."

Ellis interjected: "I understand your suspicions, I had them, too. I assure you, the government was trying. But there is nothing to implicate Mr. Lindh" in the death of Spann's son.

Held by Red Cross

Lindh was taken into custody after the prison uprising, near Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan. He was taken into the care of the Red Cross, which turned him over to U.S. officials once they determined he was an American.

Lindh must serve his full 20-year prison term because the federal courts do not allow for parole, although good behavior could reduce his sentence slightly.

Prosecutors say Lindh has been cooperating with U.S. counter-terrorism efforts as part of the deal and will have to continue to do so, as well as take periodic polygraph tests.

Lindh and other al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners have told investigators that they had heard the Sept. 11 attacks were intended to be the first of three al-Qaida assaults in the United States, the second of which was to have taken place last November.

Lindh said other Taliban foot soldiers told him that up to 50 suicide terrorists were sent to the United States on intended missions.

When did he know?

Authorities stressed yesterday that those statements are uncorroborated. And Lindh's attorneys said that while Lindh met bin Laden three times, he was a low-level soldier and had heard only rumors about future attacks.

It remained unclear yesterday whether Lindh heard discussion of the 50 possible suicide terrorists before Sept. 11, as intelligence reports indicated, or afterward, as Lindh has insisted.

In sentencing Lindh, Ellis said some Americans would likely find Lindh's sentence too lenient, but he said, "Punishment is different from forgiveness."

Lindh, in his statement, thanked his family and lawyers for their support, and also thanked "those who treated my wounds on the USS Peleliu and those who helped bring me home."

Speaking of bin Laden, Lindh said: "His grievances, whatever they may be, cannot be addressed by acts of injustice and violence against innocent people in America."

At the time that he was fighting alongside the Taliban, Lindh said, he thought that the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces had committed atrocities and that the Taliban were protecting the Afghan people.

But he said, "My experience of living in Afghanistan was limited to military life. In retrospect, I had no real exposure to the life of civilians under the rule of the Taliban.

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