Mohammad Islam and Nick Schigrin / ABC News – 2010-07-10 18:14:25
SARGOHDA, Pakistan (June 24, 2010) — A special anti-terrorism court closed to observers and presided over by a single judge convicted five young American men today of planning to launch attacks in Pakistan.
The Americans — all from Virginia and all Muslim — were sentenced to 10-year jail terms in this rural county for criminal conspiracy to attack Pakistan and for providing funds to banned terrorist organizations. Their lawyers said they will appeal, and predicted a higher court will see the evidence as thin.
When the five Americans were arrested here in December, they were the highest profile example of what American officials said was a new, disturbing trend: U.S. citizens turning to Islamic extremism. Police in Sargodha accused the men — all in their late teens or early 20s — of wanting to attack Pakistan, U.S. bases in Afghanistan and the United States itself, using their American passports as assets. But they were acquitted of charges relating to Afghanistan and the United States.
U.S. officials also used the case to raise concerns about the apparent ease with which would-be terrorists could travel to Pakistan and join any one of a number of terrorist groups. Police accused the five of trying (and failing) to join Jaish-e-Muhammad — implicated in the death of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl — and Lashkar-e-Taiba, accused of attacking Mumbai in November 2008. Both groups are banned in Pakistan, but senior police officials say they continue to openly recruit.
Prosecutors accused the men of deciding to launch attacks while still in their homes near Virginia and then reaching out to a militant named Saifullah or Qari Saifullah in Pakistan. They communicated, police and prosecutors say, via the drafts folder of a Yahoo e-mail account, arranging to join a terrorist group and receive terrorist training.
“We told the leadership of Jaish-e-Muhammad that we want to wage jihad and suicide bombing in the path of Allah Almighty,” reads the sometimes clumsy confession written by police and obtained by ABC News. “We all have a crystal clear vision and firm determination that we would wage jihad and embarrass [sic]” suicide missions.
A Controversial Conviction
The men received two prison terms, one for 10 years on the conspiracy charge and the other for five years on the funding charge. But they can serve them concurrently. They were also fined about $820.
Prosecutors praised the judge’s ruling, but said the Americans should have received more jail time.
“We will appeal in the high court to enhance the sentence,” Rana Bakhtiar told reporters in Sargodha.
The Americans’ defense attorneys heavily criticized the evidence the police gathered and the prosecution presented, claiming the written confession was full of holes and at least partially “fabricated,” in the words of Hasan Dastagir.
Dastagir accused the police of “planting” books advocating terrorism on the men and “manufacturing” at least one of the e-mails that police say the Americans wrote to Saifullah. He also said he was shocked that the 50-page ruling contained none of the evidence he presented during the six-month-long trial.
“There’s not a single word in the judgment& given or produced by the defense side. The judge should have at least considered it, even if he disregarded it,” Dastagir told ABC News.
Two of the Americans are of Pakistani descent: Umar Farooq and Waqar Hussain Khan; one is of Egyptian descent: Rami Zamzam; and two are of Ethopian descent: Ahmed Minni, Aman Hassan Yamer.
Farooq’s father, Khalid, says his son was planning to get married and the group traveled here to attend the festivities. Dastagir noted that they arrived in Pakistan with three-piece suits. “What kind of terrorist wears a suit?” he asked.
Only after the wedding, Khalid Farooq said, were the five intending to travel to Afghanistan to help their fellow Muslims.
Dastagir said he will appeal to the Lahore High Court, one step below the Pakistani Supreme Court.
That appeal has a relatively high chance of succeeding. Pakistani courts suffer from shoddy evidence gathering and sloppy prosecutions, independent analysts say, and that leads higher courts to often overturn lower courts’ convictions.
The Problems of the Anti-Terrorism Court
“A large number of these convictions are set aside. The reason is that the anti-terrorism court tries to decide cases quickly, even if the evidence is not there,” says Nasir Aslam Zahid, an expert on the Pakistani legal system and the former chief justice of the Sindh High Court. “In the high court, you may be convinced that this person in front of you may have committed this crime, but you have to go on the evidence on record. And you find that the case has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt, so you have no choice but to acquit.”
The Lahore High Court has overturned high-profile convictions from anti-terrorist courts before, including the man convicted of raping Mukhtar Mai and two men convicted of trying to kill then President Pervez Musharraf.
Indeed, Pakistani courts have recently overturned dozens of terror-related convictions. Since April at least 33 alleged terrorists have been released, according to Dawn, a leading English language newspaper here. The 33 had been indicted in nine suicide attacks that killed more than 150 people, Dawn said.
Zahid said the problem was created by a weak system of prosecution and evidence collecting — rather than multiple cases of wrongly accused victims.
“Our police are not trained, they are not educated, and the investigation is not properly done,” Zahid said. “The cases that are put up for trial before the courts are half baked.”
Dastagir said he will appeal to the Lahore High Court within the week.
“The trial doesn’t stop here,” he said.