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Lindh Lawyers Allege Threats, Abuse

Court: Defense papers say U.S. soldiers talked of killing the American Talib. Trial is in August.

June 15, 2002|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Attorneys for John Walker Lindh charged Friday that U.S. military personnel threatened to shoot or hang him after his capture last fall and that he waived his right to legal counsel because he was told there were no lawyers in Afghanistan who could help him.

The defense team also sought to explain why Lindh did not cooperate with CIA agent Johnny "Mike" Spann and warn him that his life was in danger shortly before Spann was killed during a prison revolt. Lindh, his lawyers said, assumed Spann and another CIA agent were working for the Northern Alliance and that Taliban soldiers like himself would be tortured.

"At no time," the defense lawyers said, "did the two Americans identify themselves or indicate that they were not a part of [the Northern Alliance] forces."

Defense lawyers made their assertions in nearly 250 pages of documents filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., where they are asking a federal judge to rule that none of the statements their client made to authorities should be allowed at his August trial.

The defense argued that Lindh, 21, of Northern California, was illegally shielded from his San Francisco lawyer and that, through harassment and deprivation, he was coerced into signing away his right to legal assistance. Otherwise, they said, he never would have talked.

Government lawyers, however, have maintained that Lindh knew exactly what he was doing when he agreed to speak to military and FBI interrogators on a handful of occasions. Those statements form the basis for the indictment against Lindh, charging that he turned his back on his native country and assisted Osama bin Laden in his terrorist campaign against the U.S.

Prosecutors have denied that Lindh was tortured and have said conditions were harsh because it was a war zone.

Judge T.S. Ellis III is expected to rule next month on whether Lindh's statements will be allowed at trial. Defense lawyers are scheduled to file more motions Monday about why any incriminating statements should be stricken from the case and Lindh's alleged confession kept from the jury.

The judge's decision is likely to be pivotal to the trial's outcome, so the fight over the statements looms as the most crucial legal battlefront in the fate of the so-called American Talib.

A week before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Lindh joined the Taliban's front-line forces in Afghanistan, sent there to fight the Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance, which was trying to wrest control of the country from the Taliban, was known for brutality, including "mutilation, castration and rape to terrorize local civilians and torture captured soldiers," Lindh lawyers said.

During the fighting, nearly a third of Lindh's unit was killed, and he was captured and taken to a prison fort. By that time, his lawyers said, he was weak and dehydrated. At one point, "unable to find a space in which to lie down, Mr. Lindh spent the night without sleep, crouched near a corner that was used as a toilet by the basement inhabitants," they said.

The first interrogation was attempted by Spann and the other CIA agent. At that time, the lawyers said, Northern Alliance troops were pulling Taliban captives out of the fort and beating them even as they were bound head and foot. "Mr. Lindh was hit in the back of the head by one of the soldiers," his lawyers said.

It was then that Lindh noticed Spann. The encounter is emerging as a key part of the trial: Prosecutors allege that Lindh's failure to warn Spann his life was in danger led to his death.

"Lindh saw two Anglo-looking men walking among the detained soldiers," the lawyers said. "One was dressed in a long Afghan shirt and carried a large gun and a video camera. The other, later identified as Johnny Michael Spann, was wearing a black shirt and jeans; he had a gun and a small camera."

The lawyers said the CIA pair were "singling out prisoners for individual interrogation" and that Lindh "assumed they were working with" the Northern Alliance. One of the agents gave orders to the alliance guards, "who readily complied." They did not intervene in the torture, lawyers said.

And when the agents singled out Lindh for questioning, not only did they not identify themselves, but a Northern Alliance guard "kept his gun trained on Mr. Lindh," the lawyers said.

Later there was an explosion and a prison uprising. Spann was killed and Lindh was wounded in the right thigh.

Lindh hid in a basement with other Taliban prisoners until they were forced to surrender Dec. 1.

In subsequent days, Lindh was blindfolded and tied to a gurney, kept in a metal container and deprived of food and water, the defense said. When he asked who was holding him prisoner, he was told it was not Americans but the Northern Alliance.

Other times, the defense said, Lindh was humiliated. "Frequently, U.S. military personnel taunted Mr. Lindh with derogatory epithets."

Still later, soldiers scrawled a profanity across his blindfold and took photographs of themselves with him.

"Another told Mr. Lindh [a Muslim convert] he was 'going to hang' for his actions and that after he was dead, the soldier would sell the photographs and give the money to a Christian organization. Another told Mr. Lindh he wanted to shoot him there and then."

On occasion, while tied to a stretcher, his guards refused to release him when he needed to urinate but "instead propped up the stretcher to a vertical position," the documents said.

And when he asked for a lawyer, he was told "there are no lawyers here," the defense said.

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