US Taliban fighter admits guilt

The American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh accepted the certainty of a 20-year jail sentence yesterday by changing his plea to guilty on two of the 10 charges he faced.

The American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh accepted the certainty of a 20-year jail sentence yesterday by changing his plea to guilty on two of the 10 charges he faced.

Lindh pleaded guilty to illegally aiding the Taliban and carrying explosives, both of which carry 10-year sentences under US federal law. In return, the government dropped charges, including conspiracy to murder Americans, that could have led to him being given a life sentence without the possibility of remission. It had already decided not to charge him with the capital crime of treason. He will be formally sentenced later this year.

The plea bargain followed several days of negotiations, so secret that even the judge knew nothing about it until yesterday morning and so sensitive that the outcome was apparently approved by President Bush. The deal was only settled at midnight on Sunday.

Outside the courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia, the US attorney, Paul McNulty, said: "This is an important victory for the American people in the battle against terrorism. This is a tough sentence and an appropriate punishment."

Under the deal, Lindh has agreed to cooperate "fully and completely" with the government. He has to submit to a full debriefing, including a lie detector test; he has withdrawn charges of mistreatment; he can be re-arrested if he ever associates with terrorists after his release; and, if he ever sells his story, the government will pocket the takings.

None the less, at 21, he can at least contemplate the remote possibility of a normal life in the future, which might not have happened had the decision gone to a Virginia jury. Under federal law, however, parole before his 40th birthday is a possibility.

Lindh, a middle-class boy from California, turned to Islam at the age of 16, and apparently came into contact with the Taliban while studying the Koran in Pakistan. He was found in December, in the ruins of Qala-i-Jhangi in northern Afghanistan, after the bloody battle that broke out when Taliban prisoners rebelled.

His emergence was one of the most galvanising moments of the war for the American public. Suddenly, the enemy was not a bunch of remote figures with strange-sounding names, but one of their own. He might have been any mom's son.

Two months later, Lindh was brought to the US and hauled into court, an entirely different strategy from the one pursued against other Taliban fighters and al-Qaida suspects. By then his parents had hired a high-powered San Francisco lawyer, Jim Brosnahan, who denounced the government for mistreating his client and illegally denying access to a lawyer.

The justice department was aware that the handling of Lindh, in the fraught surroundings of Afghanistan, might not fit with the niceties of American law, one reason why it was keen to avoid a trial. The government was also conscious that the evidence might involve security issues it was anxious to avoid.

However, Mr Brosnahan's team failed to win any groundswell of sympathy for the notion of Lindh being a deluded idealist, and was pessimistic about its chances at the trial, set for next month.

The same court is to hear the case against the alleged 20th hijacker, Zacarias Moussaoui, in jail on September 11 but still facing possible execution for his part in the conspiracy. His lawyers might have used the Lindh deal as leverage - but Mr Moussaoui has fired them.


Matthew Engel, Washington

The GuardianTramp

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