Three Muslims convicted in paintball terror case

Americans were accused of training for holy war on U.S. during outings in Va.

March 05, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ALEXANDRIA, Va. - In a victory for the Bush administration's campaign to root out homegrown terrorism, a federal judge convicted three American Muslims yesterday of conspiring to help a Pakistani group wage "violent jihad" against Indian forces in Kashmir and possibly U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Federal prosecutors had portrayed the men, two of them U.S.-born converts and one a Pakistani immigrant, as radical Muslims who had prepared to fight for Islamic causes overseas by acquiring weapons and playing paintball in Virginia, as well as training at a camp for mujahadeen fighters in Pakistan.

The defense had disputed that depiction, arguing that the men were moderate Muslims who played paintball purely for fun and never intended to hurt Americans. They asserted that the prosecution had been driven by anti-Muslim bias.

In a 75-page ruling issued from the bench yesterday, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema came down squarely behind the prosecution's argument, calling the defendants' denials "incredible." Though she found each of the defendants not guilty on some of the numerous counts against them, she convicted them on most of the major conspiracy and weapons charges.

"I could not find the testimony of the two defendants credible," Brinkema said, referring to the testimony of Seifullah Chapman and Hammad Abdur-Raheem. The third defendant, Masoud Ahmad Khan, did not take the witness stand during the four-week trial.

Brinkema said the defendants' claims of innocence amounted to a "blind and deliberate ignorance" of the law that did not justify wrongdoing, adding that she found the case poignant because the defendants appeared to be good fathers and husbands.

The Justice Department issued a statement praising the verdict as a major victory against Islamic terrorists' efforts to "recruit, train and finance jihad in America."

Brinkema ordered Chapman and Adbur-Raheem, who had been free on bail, held at the federal detention center in Alexandria until their sentencing hearing in June. Khan was already being held at the detention center.

All three men had rejected plea agreements that would have given them much shorter prison sentences than what they now face, their lawyers said. Khan, who was convicted on the most serious charges, could receive more than 100 years in prison. Chapman faces 30 years or more, while Abdur-Raheem could get 15 or more, the lawyers said.

The three men were part of a broader indictment handed up last year that charged 11 men with plotting to assist Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, a Pakistan-based group dedicated to forcing Indian forces out of the disputed Kashmir region. In December 2001, the United States declared Lashkar a foreign terrorist organization.

The conspiracy charges were brought partly under the Neutrality Act, a rarely used law that prohibits organizing military expeditions on U.S. soil against countries that are at peace with the United States.

Six of the defendants pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution. One man was acquitted last month, and the final defendant is scheduled to begin trial next week.

The indictment charged that Chapman, 31, went to a Lashkar training camp in Pakistan with the possible goal of fighting Indian forces in Kashmir. It also accused him of helping to train other group members in combat techniques.

Abdur-Raheem, 35, a former soldier, was also accused of attempting to assist Lashkar by providing combat training.

Khan, 32, was not a regular paintball player. But he traveled with several members of the group to a Lashkar camp in late September 2001.

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