AlterNet 1 June 28, 2008 Rogue prosecutor strikes again.
The same prosecutor who sentenced Masoud to Life in Prison without allowing him his constitutional rights.
The Injustice Continues: New Indictment Brought Against Political Prisoner Sami Al-Arian
Months after completing a sentence he never should have had to serve in the first place, Sami Al-Arian faces new trumped up charges by the Bush DoJ
This is from a radio interview at
DEMOCRACY NOW (NPR Radio) Wednesday, June 16th, 2004
Paintball Practice to Prison:
A Look At One of The Most Controversial Terrorism Cases in the Country
In Virginia, a judge sentenced three men to prison Tuesday, including one to life and another to 85 years, on terrorism charges connected to a game of paintball. But the sentence is coming under intense criticism--from the judge herself who described the sentence as "appalling" and "Draconian." We talk to one of the defendant's attorneys who says the ruling marks "the greatest miscarriage of justice of any case" he has ever seen.
In Virginia, three Muslim men were sentenced to up to life in prison after the government accused the men of training for holy war abroad by playing paintball games in the Virginia woods. One man was sentenced to life. Another to 85 years and the third got eight years. The men were accused of being connected to the Pakistani group Lashkar-i-Taiba which is trying to drive India from the disputed region of Kashmir.
In an unusual development, the judge in the case, U.S. District Court Judge Lonnie Brinkema, called the lengthy sentences "appalling" and "draconian" but said she had no choice under federal law. She said "We have murderers who get far less time. I've sent Al Qaeda members planning attacks on these shores to less time. This is sticking in my craw. Law and justice at times need to be in tune."
One of the defendant's attorneys called the sentence "the greatest miscarriage of justice of any case" he has been involved in 34 years of practice.
John Zwerling, attorney based in Alexandria Virginia. He represented Seifullah Chapman in the Virginia Paintball case. His client was sentenced on Tuesday to 85 years in jail.
David Cole, Washington-based constitutional attorney, professor at Georgetown Law School and author of the book "Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedom in the War on Terrorism."
AMY GOODMAN: Let me read you something from today's Washington Post. "The federal judge imposed a life prison sentence yesterday on one member of the alleged Virginia jihad network, an 85-year term on another. In an unusual criticism of her own ruling, the judge said she found it appalling, but had no choice under strict sentencing guidelines. U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said the 85-year sentence she handed down to the defendant, who is 31 years old, was, "Sticking in my craw." He and two other co-defendants were convicted by Brinkema in March of conspiring to aid a Muslim group fighting India that the government has deemed a terrorist organization. The judge told an Alexandria courtroom packed with supporters of the three men, "What Mr. Chapman has been found guilty of is a serious crime, but there are murderers who have served far less time." She said, "I have sentenced al-Qaeda members planning attacks on these shores to far less time." In sentencing him to prison and another to 97 months, Brinkema closed an unusual case in which 11 Muslim men were originally charged with taking part in paramilitary training, including playing paintball in the Virginia countryside to prepare for Holy War abroad. Six defendants pleaded guilty. Only the three went to trial. Two others were acquitted. We go now to John Zwerling, an attorney based in Alexandria, Virginia. He represents one of the defendants in the Virginia paintball case. His client, again, sentenced to 85 years in jail. We're talking to him on his cell phone in his car. Welcome to Democracy Now!
JOHN ZWERLING: Good morning, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what happened here?
JOHN ZWERLING: Well, what point? I mean, this case was conceived in ignorance and a misunderstanding of what Islam is all about. And under a rush to prosecute Muslims, I really believe that. I didn't believe that when I first got into the case, but I came to believe that. They misused the term jihad throughout the entire trial. You're even now referring to it as the Virginia Jihad Trial because that's the name that the government gave it so it would have a flashy ring in the press. And jihad, as you probably know and many of your listeners probably know, means a struggle for good or struggle for God and it is everything from depriving yourself from certain pleasures in service of God, to trying to live a good life, to improving violent struggle through self-defense. But always within the laws of the land that you live in. This is my understanding from having spent about a year in this case and according to a lot of people. And, you know, when a group of young men started to play paintball, some of them were doing it in what they said were preparation for jihad. But they didn't mean that by going abroad and killing people, they meant preparing themselves to be able to respond to whatever the future might hold, whether it was defending the family from attacks, as many Muslims were required to do after 9/11, including my client, who's home was defaced to people banging on doors, to just being prepared. And he got it all twisted around. It was very sad. Very sad to see.
AMY GOODMAN: I would like to ask you about the judge's comments. That's pretty astounding that she first sentenced your client to 85 years in prison and then said that she found it appalling that she did that, that the sentence is sticking in her craw, but that she has no choice. Explain.
JOHN ZWERLING: All right. Under the federal system, there are mandatory minimum sentences that are applied to certain offenses. There are mandatory guidelines that judges have to live with because Congress has refused to allow judges to use common sense and judicial discretion and fashion appropriate sentences. And they often times result in the law not allowing justice to appear in the courtrooms, especially for them to go to trial. And this is not unique to this case. There are a lot of federal judges who have resigned their positions over the drug laws where there are these horrendous minimum mandatory penalties for first offenders, where crack cocaine is treated 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine, even though the government knows that crack cocaine is primarily a prosecution of minorities and powder cocaine less so. And so it has that discriminatory effect. For example, possession of five grams of cocaine carries a five-year minimum mandatory penalty, a five-year powder cocaine you can get probation. It's not unique. And in this case, the using and possessing of a firearm to go hunting and also becoming more proficient, which you would expect to go target shooting, became a 30-year offense minimum.
AMY GOODMAN: John, we're also joined by Constitutional Attorney David Cole. We're actually having him on to talk about a different case. This case, the young man who was acquitted who ran websites. But before we go to break, David Cole, I wanted to get your comment on this case and the judge's own comments after she sentenced his client to 85 years in prison, saying she found what she was doing appalling.
DAVID COLE: Well, I think it is appalling and I think it is a reflection of how crazy we have gotten in this war on terrorism. There is a case right now pending on appeal to the Fourth Circuit in Virginia which involved a guy who was convicted of smuggling cigarettes across state lines and then donating $3,000 of the proceeds to Hezbollah. No proof that he was sending it for any sort of illegal purpose. His co-conspirators got five-year sentences. But because he was convicted of also having made a donation to Hezbollah in Lebanon, he got a 155-year sentence. And the sentences are just completely out of whack with any sort of common sense or with any sort of moral culpability.
AMY GOODMAN: We are going to break. And then we're going to talk about another case. I want to thank John Zwerling. His client was just sentenced to 85 years in jail with the judge objecting to her own sentence that she handed down to this man. Also, we're speaking to David Cole, so stay with us.
To purchase an audio or video copy of this entire program, call 1 (800) 881-2359 FREE.
by Jaime Ciavarra
Masoud Khan's family is eager to point out that he's an American citizen.
The Montgomery Village man who went to Gaithersburg High School and worked at The Home Depot on Shady Grove Road now spends his time reading books from a federal prison library.
He has been labeled an Islamic extremist by the United States government, convicted in March, 2004 of conspiring to aid a Muslim group that the United States deemed a terrorist organization four years ago.
In a non-jury trial, Khan was found guilty on eight of 12 federal terrorism charges, including conspiring to contribute services to the Taliban.
He maintained his innocence.
It has been more than a year since Khan was sentenced to life in prison, plus 65 years, and put behind bars.
His mother Elisabeth is fighting depression.
His 2-year old son cries when visiting time is over.
Khan's patience has been tested.
He and his family are still trying to find hope.
Later this week, Khan is scheduled to be resentenced by the same federal judge who said she was frustrated by restrictive sentencing guidelines on terrorism, arguing that the time imposed on Khan and two other men were "sticking in her craw," according to court documents and Khan's lawyer Jonathan Shapiro.
Shapiro says he's hopeful the sentence could be reduced, a first break in a long appeals process that is both expensive for the Khan family and emotionally draining.
They're not giving up.
"In the same way that my life took a sudden shocking turn, it is possible for it to take another turn for the better at any time or place," Khan wrote in a letter to The Gazette.
He is incarcerated in a Virginia prison.
"I do have hope."
Khan's brother Ahmad often lies awake at night, wondering if it could have been him.
Their mother Elisabeth owned three properties in Pakistan, where their late father had been born, and needed someone to appear with the original housing documents before court in order to sell them, she said.
Ahmad was in Morocco with his wife, so Masoud, then 27 years old and working at Home Depot, said he would go.
It was days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
"I said, 'You've got to go and get back before they stop everyone from traveling,'" Elisabeth Khan said.
"That was a big mistake."
While in Pakistan, Khan visited the training camp of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based group fighting India for disputed land in Kashmir.
Elisabeth said he was looking at a residential area of the camp and thinking about buying land for a home.
Prosecutors argued he was training with the group and fired weapons like an AK-47.
He was convicted, among other charges, of conspiracy to levy war against the United States.
Khan was one of 11 Muslim men involved in what was dubbed the "Virginia Jihad" case, where prosecutors said the men met to train for combat overseas with paintball games in Virginia.
Nine were convicted or pleaded guilty; two were cleared.
Khan was given the harshest sentence.
The convictions were hailed by the Justice Department as an important blow against terrorists based in the United States.
But some civil libertarians say Muslim men are being imprisoned with little evidence by a government eager to make up for the wrongs of Sept. 11.
"If I, or a Jewish American person, or a Catholic American person went overseas to Israel or Ireland and had the same kind of conversations Masoud had about his religious group, I don't think we'd be thrown in jail," said Steven Lapham of Montgomery Village, one of Khan's supporters.
"There's all kind of things, when you piece them together, they can sound like a conspiracy," Lapham said.
"But you have to look at them through paranoid glasses."
Taking a stand
Lapham, who lives a few miles from the Khan family, did not know Khan in the 15 years Khan lived in Montgomery Village.
Lapham has no evidence that he is innocent, he points out, but is concerned about the "harsh" sentence imposed on a man that he thinks would get less jail time if he weren't Muslim.
Lapham is a white Christian, and a father.
In January Lapham set up a Web site for Khan called Muslim American Buddy.
On it, Lapham likens Khan's imprisonment to the Japanese American camps in the United States during World War II.
Other links on the site go to a petition to U.S. representatives to investigate Khan's case, which Lapham decries as a blow to civil liberties and free speech.
So far, more than 200 people have signed the petition online, he said.
"Things are still very slow," he added.
"People don't want to hear bad news about their own country and people don't want to believe that their First Amendment rights really are eroding."
When he can, Lapham goes to town hall meetings or events like the Montgomery Village July Fourth parade to pass out fliers about Khan.
He and Elisabeth have written to U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen, and U.S. senators Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, asking them to look into the case.
While they receive brief responses, they've found little help.
Khan's family, including his mother, wife, brother and son who still live in Montgomery Village, say their mosque, the Islamic Center of Maryland, has been very supportive, at times making donations to support Khan's wife.
Elisabeth has already paid $250,000 in legal fees and had to take out a $25,000 loan on her house.
She often finds it hard to focus on her job at a law firm, she said, but knows that she needs the money.
"You want to have hope, but it's hard," said Elisabeth.
"My problem is, I keep thinking there must be something more I can do to help. And the answer always comes back no."
Waiting for more
Elisabeth and Ahmad remember the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; the sorrow they felt for the victims and the families, and the anger they felt toward the killers.
And they remember the fear.
"We, as Muslims, thought, this is the end, and the beginning of the end," Elisabeth said.
"We were going to be blamed all over the world."
Prosecutors used the terrorist attacks as an important emotional tool during the Virginia trial.
"While the Pentagon was still smoking," federal prosecutor Gordon Kromberg said during trial, according to court documents.
"Mr. Khan decided now is the appropriate time to go fight the Americans."
The U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement that praised the convictions as an important step in making America safer.
"These convictions are a stark reminder that terrorist organizations are active in the United States," then Attorney General John Ashcroft said in the statement.
"We will not allow terrorist groups to exploit America's freedoms for their murderous goals."
But Elisabeth Khan maintains her son's innocence and says that she is disillusioned by the government's attempt to "put away Muslims, regardless of proof."
"I grew up in Washington and was so patriotic, you expect everyone to be honest," she said.
Prosecutors told The Gazette last year that Khan was given a fair trial, and will continue to be represented fairly in upcoming appeals.
Prosecutors did not respond to requests for comment on Friday's resentencing.
Other problems keep Elisabeth up at night, like Khan's diet in prison, whether mail gets to him, and why her house phone is restricted from collect calls, often the only way to talk to her son in prison.
Since April Khan has been held in solitary confinement, and his family doesn't know why.
His visiting hours at a Virginia prison are on Tuesdays for several hours.
Elisabeth and Ahmad work.
Khan's wife does not drive.
To see him, they have to rearrange their schedules weeks in advance.
Sometimes Elisabeth thinks about the 32 FBI agents that surrounded her house with automatic rifles May 8, 2003, to arrest Masoud.
"They had to have someone. Someone to make them look good," she said.
"Bottom line is they just got the wrong man."
In a few days she will sit through her son's resentencing, which stems from a Supreme Court decision earlier this year that overturned mandatory-sentencing guidelines, like those used to sentence Khan.
Khan doesn't think much will come out of the resentencing, he wrote.
But he has hope that an appeal will set him free.
"This is not the type of case where one can expect a lot of breaks," Khan wrote. "...
[M]y only real difficulty and challenge has been exercising my patience.
" At home, Elisabeth and Ahmad are getting used to the stares from neighbors, or strangers at the grocery store.
They want to tell people that the Khans are just like them: Americans who care about the nation where they live.
They say the "great evil" in the case is ignorance.
"The thing is, it could get worse," for American Muslims, Elisabeth said.
"This is just not the country I thought it was."