Now that we know the truth behind how U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have been treating captured fighters (and captured innocent bystanders), it’s time to revisit the case of John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban fighter” who is now serving 20 years in federal prison. For had Lindh pursued his case in court, instead of settling and getting slapped with a gag order, he might have exposed the whole prisoner abuse scandal two years ago, and spared the U.S.-and a whole lot of abused or slain POWs-the Abu-Ghraib fiasco.
Lindh, it may be recalled, was among a group of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters captured and later, for the most part, slaughtered in northern Afghanistan by American soldiers and their Northern Alliance allies.
Initially threatened by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft with being tried as a traitor, Lindh was eventually charged with terrorism, consorting with Al Qaeda, and attempting to kill Americans. But he never went to trial. Instead, he pleaded guilty to just two relatively innocuous charges. But for those two charges-the first of which (carrying a grenade), probably innumerable Americans are guilty of, and the second of which (providing services to an enemy of the U.S.), could more properly be brought against a number of major U.S. corporations–Lindh had the book thrown at him by a compliant federal judge in Virginia. The judge, at the government’s request, also hit him with a gag order barring him from talking about his experience. As part of his plea bargain agreement, Lindh was even forced to sign a statement saying: “The defendant agrees that this agreement puts to rest his claims of mistreatment by the United states military, and all claims of mistreatment are withdrawn. The defendant acknowledges that he was not intentionally mistreated by the U.S. military.”
This outlandish and over-the-top effort to legally muzzle Lindh appears in a harsh new light now that we know the criminal nature of U.S. prisoner-of-war policies.
In the run-up to his trial, it was clear from documents submitted by the defense that Lindh had been viciously treated in captivity. Shot in the leg prior to his capture, and already starving and badly dehydrated, Lindh unconscionably was left with his wound untreated and festering for days despite doctors being readily available. Denied access to a lawyer, and threatened repeatedly with death, he was duct-taped to a stretcher and left for long periods of time in an enclosed, unheated and unlit metal shipping container, removed only during interrogations, at which time he was still left taped to his stretcher. (Hundreds of his Taliban and Al Qaeda comrades actually were deliberately allowed to die in those same containers in one of the more monstrous war crimes perpetrated during this conflict.)
In truth, the government’s case against Lindh was always spurious at best. A 20-year-old, white, middle-class convert to Islam from Marin County, California, Lindh had only gone to Afghanistan in August 2001, scarcely a month before the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. At the time of his arrival there, the Taliban government, far from being an enemy of America, was still receiving funding from the U.S. government. Lindh, to the extent that he was ever a fighter with the Taliban (he hadn’t had time for a decent “boot camp”training in weapons use), was in fact fighting the Northern Alliance, not America, at the time of the U.S. invasion. His attorneys maintain that he never was an enemy of his own country, and in fact had been trapped with the Taliban in Afghanistan by the surprise U.S. invasion.
What appears to have led Ashcroft and the U.S. government to drop its serious charges against Lindh, and to agree to a settlement on minor charges, was his defense attorneys’ plans to go after testimony about his treatment from other Afghani captives being held at Guantanamo who had witnessed it.
Had those witnesses been permitted to testify in his case–as the judge had already said he would probably agree to, given Lindh’s constitutional right to mount a vigorous defense–there would have been plenty of embarrassing evidence presented about torture and abuse at the hands of U.S. troops.
This sorry legal history raises a couple of very troubling questions.
First of all, the haste with which the government deep-sixed this case, after first trumpeting it as a highlight in the “war on terror,” and the lengths to which the attorney general went to silence Lindh, suggest that the Bush administration well knew what was coming and was determined to keep its criminal treatment of POWs in Afghanistan a secret. Second, the closing off of evidence of torture, to which Lindh himself could have testified, along with any witnesses he might have called-witnesses who might well have included some of his torturers and their superior officers-allowed an official campaign of torture and abuse of POWs to continue and to expand into Iraq, ultimately leading to the Abu Ghraib scandal and the discrediting of the entire U.S. war effort. Last, but certainly not least, Lindh himself, terrified at being railroaded to a potential death sentence or a sentence to life in prison without parole, and already a victim of torture and abuse at the hands of his federal captors, remains almost certainly wrongfully imprisoned-just one more victim of America’s criminal violation of the Geneva Conventions and our own constitutional right to a fair trial.
In a fair world, Judge T.S. Ellis, who accommodated the Justice Department by slapping Lindh with a brutally harsh sentence, and by gratuitously silencing him and forcing him to forswear any future claim of torture, would reopen this case in view of what is now known about how prisoners like Lindh were being treated by U.S. forces.
This is not, however, a fair world-or a fair legal system–and as more and more judges like Ellis are appointed to the federal bench, it is becoming even less fair as time goes by.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of Counterpunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” to be published this fall by Common Courage Press.