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RESPONSE TO TERROR

U.S. Talib Goes to Court on Conspiracy Counts

Law: John Lindh says little as prosecutors accuse him of freely choosing to join enemy.

January 25, 2002|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — His hair and beard shorn, a made-over John Philip Walker Lindh stood accused Thursday in the heavily fortified federal courthouse where lawyers will lay out conflicting versions of his story: Was he a traitor working with the Taliban or a brainwashed kid from Northern California?

Lindh said little to the judge, except to acknowledge the gravity of the terrorist conspiracy charges against him. It fell moments later to his parents and their team of gray-suited lawyers to speak in his defense outside the courthouse here in this Washington suburb.

His father said he was no turncoat; his mother said the United States is his true home.

"He never meant to harm any American, and he never did harm any American," Frank Lindh said. "John is innocent of these charges."

But prosecutors, from Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft--who spoke at a separate news briefing--down to a phalanx of government lawyers that packed the hearing, insisted that Lindh freely chose to fight for the enemy, before and even after the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11.

Lindh, Ashcroft said, "will be held responsible in the courtroom for his choices."

The early morning hearing--held hours after Lindh arrived back in the United States under heavy guard--brought together his parents from the West Coast, government prosecutors and the team of high-powered attorneys who will defend him.

Security was extraordinarily tight, as armed officers in black SWAT uniforms positioned themselves outside the courthouse and in the surrounding streets. And the mob of reporters and camera crews offered a glimpse of the media frenzy that will accompany the case.

If convicted, Lindh could be sentenced to life in prison with no parole. If new charges of treason are added--a possibility that U.S. Atty. Paul McNulty left open after the hearing--Lindh could face the death penalty.

He was captured last fall during the war in Afghanistan, and he immediately gained celebrity as the "American Talib"--a naive, privileged young man who converted to Islam and made his way to that far corner of the world.

The image of a disheveled Lindh--unkempt hair, grizzled black beard and frightened, sometimes angry eyes--has been replayed almost incessantly on American newscasts.

But it was clear from Thursday's events that his family and attorneys are seeking to soften that image.

His lawyers said he would no longer use his Islamic names, Suleyman al-Faris and Abdul Hamid. Nor would he use John Walker, the name he first gave to authorities. He would once again use his given name, John Lindh.

Last week, he was charged with federal offenses including conspiring to kill U.S. citizens overseas and providing material support and resources to foreign terrorist organizations.

Lindh entered the courtroom in a green jail jumpsuit, the word "PRISONER" emblazoned in white letters across his back. His father and his mother, Marilyn Walker, sat near their son as the charges were read, and U.S. Magistrate W. Curtis Sewell sought to make sure Lindh knew what was happening.

In contrast to his sometimes confused countenance in television news footage, Lindh appeared quite composed.

Did he understand the charges against him?

"Yes, I understand the charges," he said.

Did he understand the possible punishment?

"Yes, I understand generally."

Anything further?

"No, I don't have any questions."

The judge set a Feb. 6 bail hearing, and the brief session ended. The seventh-floor courtroom, rimmed inside and out with security officers, slowly emptied.

Earlier, Lindh had met for about 20 minutes with his parents, speaking to them through a security screen. He also huddled with his lawyers for 45 minutes. The defense team, assembled by his father, who is also a lawyer, includes four former federal prosecutors.

Among them is Bill Cummings, the onetime U.S. attorney in this eastern Virginia district, and George Harris, who served as a special prosecutor in the Iran-Contra case.

The chief lawyer, James J. Brosnahan of San Francisco, who was an Iran-Contra special prosecutor, said the parents' meeting--their first with their son since before Sept. 11--was monitored by the FBI. The lawyers' session was not, he said.

In front of the courthouse, the parents, who are separated, spoke of their devotion to their middle child. Marilyn Walker, appearing near tears, offered her first public remarks in her son's case.

"It's been two years since I last saw my son," she said. "It was wonderful to see him this morning. My love for him is unconditional and absolute, and I am grateful to God that he's been brought home to his family, me, his home, his country."

Frank Lindh expressed relief that his son had received medical assistance aboard a Navy ship and appeared to be feeling well. "We're very grateful to see that John is in good physical condition," he said.

Frank Lindh then began to speak more like a lawyer, insisting that his son was not the enemy and that he had never raised a rifle in threat to U.S. forces or their allies.

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