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20-Year Sentence for Lindh


ALEXANDRIA, Va. — An emotional John Walker Lindh, protesting that he never intended to take up arms against America when he journeyed to Afghanistan, was sentenced Friday to 20 years in federal prison for serving as a foot soldier for the Taliban.

Addressing the judge from the podium, the 21-year-old Northern Californian spoke publicly for the first time about his Islamic religion, his trek to South Asia and his branding as an American traitor.

He read haltingly from a prepared statement, repeatedly removing his dark-framed glasses, dissolving into tears and struggling to catch his breath during the 15-minute speech.

"I went to Afghanistan because I believed then there was no way to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people aside from military action," Lindh said. "I did not go to fight against America, and I never did."

His words came during a remarkable 2 1/2-hour hearing that drew impassioned comments not only from Lindh but from U.S. District Judge T. S. Ellis III and Johnny Spann, the father of CIA agent Johnny Michael Spann, who was killed during a prison riot in Afghanistan shortly after he interrogated Lindh.

After prodding from the judge, Lindh insisted he had no role in Spann's death. He said he did not plan or participate in the riot that resulted in Spann being shot through the head several times, execution-style.

But the CIA agent's father strongly suggested that Lindh in fact did harm his son and that Lindh's 20-year sentence, negotiated after Lindh pleaded guilty this summer, was far too lenient.

He also scoffed at Lindh's assertion that he never fired his weapon as a soldier for the Taliban.

"I'm here as an American and as Mike Spann's father, and I represent everybody who lays over there at Arlington Cemetery," the father said.

Glancing at Lindh, and then back at the judge, he added: "I don't believe the things Mr. Lindh is saying to us."

The judge also spoke eloquently. He hailed the younger Spann as a true American hero since his death last fall as the first U.S. casualty in the war against terrorism abroad.

"All of us in America share the grief you bear," he told the father. "Everyone admires the courage and patriotism of your son. And hopefully, his death will serve as an inspiration in our struggle, our jihad if you will, against those who mean to hurt us."

Later, turning to Lindh--who hopes to pass his 20 years reading and meditating on his adopted Islamic faith--the judge said:

"I hope, Mr. Lindh, that you will have a productive 20 years in terms of enlightenment. And I do hope you take to heart your country."

Ellis spoke of the U.S. Constitution and how it had protected Lindh's rights and afforded him safeguards after his arrest and through his decision to plead guilty to singular charges of supporting the Taliban and carrying explosives in furtherance of that felony.

The judge also stressed that, had the government not admitted its inability to prove the allegation that Lindh was involved in the younger Spann's death, he never would have approved the plea agreement.

"This country has many faults, but it has many virtues," the judge said.

He said he hoped Lindh's assertion that Islam condemns terrorism was right.

"I would hope it would," Judge Ellis said. "I wouldn't worship any God who promises a bordello in heaven" for suicide martyrs willing to give their lives for those who espouse terror.

Ellis derided the hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as "the criminals and thugs of 9/11."

He also pointed out that, as part of the plea agreement, Lindh is to cooperate fully with federal authorities.

The judge noted that so far, Lindh has told them he knew of plans for three waves of attacks involving 50 suicide bombers targeting the U.S. and Israel. The third wave, he said, was to "finish America" sometime this year.

Prosecutors said Lindh has been quite cooperative. But, they added, they will give him a polygraph examination to gauge his truthfulness.

When Lindh rose to speak to the judge, U.S. marshals took their places around him, appearing as impassive as he was tearful.

"To begin, I would like to thank God who has protected and sustained me," in a voice that hinted of a Middle Eastern accent.

He thanked the court, his parents, the U.S. military medical personnel who treated his wounds aboard the Peleliu, and "those who helped bring me home."

But, he said, "I understand why so many Americans were angry when I was first discovered in Afghanistan. I realize that many still are. But I hope that with time and understanding, those feelings will change."

Then he sought to explain what got him from his Marin County boyhood to the front lines in the war in Afghanistan.

He said that in May 2001 he was a student of Islam in Pakistan, having earlier studied Arabic in Yemen. Then "I traveled to Afghanistan in order to assist the Taliban government in opposing the Northern Alliance."

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