Judge deciding US-born Taliban fighter's lawsuit

Allowing convicted Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh and other Muslim inmates to pray daily in a group at their Indiana prison would be dangerous, unaffordable and unfair to other inmates, prison officials said Thursday during a trial in Lindh's lawsuit that alleges his religious rights are being violated.

Lindh, who is serving a 20-year sentence for aiding the Taliban during the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, argues that the high-security prison's policy barring such congregate rituals violates his and other Muslim inmates' rights. His lawsuit cites a 1993 law that bans the government from curtailing religious speech without showing a compelling interest.

But government witnesses testified that Muslims, who make up the majority of inmates in the Communications Management Unit at the prison complex at Terre Haute, Ind., have operated like a gang under the guise of religious activity. Prison officials said Muslims have assaulted each other over religious disputes on at least one occasion and organized to intimidate other inmates.

"It almost appeared like a gang-like activity," Bureau of Prisons counterterrorism chief Leslie Smith said, referring to an October 2007 incident in which he said five Muslim inmates attacked another one over what he said were religious differences. "We normally see that with gangs."

One of the inmates involved in that assault testified earlier this week that the fight had nothing to do with religion.

Weekly religious gatherings are permitted for inmates of all faiths, along with additional ceremonies during high holy days such as Christmas or Ramadan, officials testified. Extending Muslim group prayers to a daily basis would strain prison resources and likely foster resentment unless the same opportunity was extended to all inmates.

"They would demand it," said Charles Lockett, a former warden at Terre Haute. "They would absolutely demand it."

The prison complex would have to hire 84 chaplains to provide daily prayers for all inmates, he said, which would cost $8.4 million a year. The prison's budget is about $94 million a year, Lockett testified.

American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana legal director Ken Falk objected repeatedly to much of both men's testimony, calling it hearsay, and U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson mostly sustained his objections.

The government rested its case following Thursday's testimony, but the judge didn't immediately issue a ruling. She gave both sides about 75 days to submit their final documents in the case, though she didn't indicate when she might rule.

Throughout the trial, Falk — and occasionally the judge — sharply questioned government witnesses about why religious gatherings were treated differently than others. Witnesses claimed religious gatherings posed a special risk because they create a rival power structure and could be used to mask illicit activities. They said Muslims are free to perform their daily prayers alone in their individual cells.

Lindh, who attended the first day of the trial and participated through a live video connection the other three days, also argued that group prayer is required under the school of Islam to which he adheres. But an imam from the same Islamic school as Lindh who testified for the government Tuesday said it does not always require the five daily prayers to be performed in a group.

Lindh is being held in a tightly controlled unit. The 31-year-old is one of 24 Muslims among the 43 inmates in his unit where prisoners are under open and covert audio and video surveillance. All of their phone calls are monitored except for talks with their attorneys, and prisoners aren't allowed to touch family members during tightly controlled visits.

Without such strong security, the government claims, inmates would be able to conspire with outsiders to commit terrorist or criminal acts.

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2009 by two Muslim inmates in the unit. Lindh joined the lawsuit in 2010, and the case has drawn far more attention since then. The other plaintiffs have dropped out as they were released from prison or transferred to other units.

Lindh was captured in Afghanistan by U.S. troops in 2001, and accused of fighting for the Taliban. Raised Catholic, the California native was 12 when he saw the movie "Malcolm X" and became interested in Islam. He converted at age 16. Walker told Newsweek after his capture that he had entered Afghanistan to help the Taliban build a "pure Islamic state."

In 2002, Lindh pleaded guilty to supplying services to the now-defunct Taliban government and carrying explosives for them. He had been charged with conspiring to kill Americans and support terrorists, but those charges were dropped in a plea agreement. He was transferred to the Terre Haute prison in 2007. He is eligible for release in 2019.


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