Lindh attorneys ask U.S. to cut 20-year sentence

`American Taliban' files request for clemency, noting release of Hamdi

September 29, 2004|By Richard A. Serrano and Lee Romney | Richard A. Serrano and Lee Romney,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO - Buoyed by the impending release of accused enemy combatant Yaser Hamdi, attorneys for John Walker Lindh filed a request for clemency with the Bush administration yesterday, asking that his 20-year sentence, the second-longest term handed down in the war on terror, be commuted.

Lindh, a 23-year-old from Marin County who gained worldwide notoriety as the "American Taliban," has been in U.S. custody since late 2001 when he surrendered while fighting in Afghanistan. Captured alongside him was Hamdi, another young American whose experience shouldering a rifle for the Taliban closely mirrored Lindh's military journey through Central Asia.

"They were found in the same place and surrendered together, and they never, ever fought against Americans," Lindh's lead attorney, James J. Brosnahan, said at a news conference.

With Hamdi scheduled to go home this week, Brosnahan said, Lindh "should be able to look and see that he, too, has a future."

The United States decided to release Hamdi, 24, after the Supreme Court ruled this summer that the government could no longer hold him without charges or access to lawyers.

The attempt by Lindh's lawyers to compare their client to Hamdi was met unenthusiastically in Washington.

White House officials said yesterday that they would wait for the Department of Justice to make a recommendation; they noted that in nearly four years in office, Bush has granted only two commutations and that those were for minor offenses.

Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo stressed that there were deep differences between Lindh and Hamdi.

"John Walker Lindh pleaded guilty in a court of law, with his lawyers standing beside him, to supporting the Taliban," Corallo said. "The Taliban was a brutal regime which harbored and assisted al-Qaida. We are currently conducting a global war on terrorism against al-Qaida and remnants of the Taliban."

In contrast, he said, "Mr. Hamdi never appeared in a court of law. He was held as an enemy combatant, and it was determined that he was no longer a significant threat to the United States. So, like other [one-time enemy combatants], he could be transferred back to his home country."

Margaret Love, who as the U.S. pardon attorney from 1990 to 1997 made clemency recommendations to two presidents, said yesterday that while disparity in the treatment of two defendants often is grounds for clemency, she believes the Lindh request is coming much too soon.

"John Walker Lindh was a poster boy for everything after 9/11," she said. "Sometimes, that's just the way things are. But eventually, maybe once Lindh has done eight or 10 years, a future president will say enough is enough."

Lindh is being held at the federal prison in Victorville, Calif. Since arriving there, his family and attorneys said, Lindh has spent his time reading, studying the Quran and, as stipulated in his plea agreement, attempting to help authorities in their fight against terrorism.

He is not allowed to communicate with the press, a restriction that his lawyers cited in declining to release a copy of the commutation petition or the narrative that Lindh was invited to give explaining why he should be freed.

But at the news conference, his lawyers asserted a number of similarities between the Lindh and Hamdi cases.

Both men were born in the United States, Lindh in Washington, D.C., and Hamdi in Louisiana. His Saudi parents were in this country on a temporary work visa.

Lindh entered Afghanistan in early June 2001, a month before Hamdi went there; both received training with the Taliban before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Each man, Lindh's lawyers said, "deployed with his Taliban unit in northeastern Afghanistan, where Taliban forces were engaged in battle with the Northern Alliance," an Afghan rebel force. "No U.S. ground troops were ever engaged in battle with the Taliban in this region," they said.

In fact, the lawyers said, there is no evidence that either man fought against the U.S. troops who swept through Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and to try to find al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Times staff writer Megan K. Stack contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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