John 'Hamza' Walker LindhWritten by CP Editor Friday, 03 December 2010
Hamza may have been raised Catholic in a white, upper-middle class family, but according to his father “he was born a Muslim... already still, already centred, already disciplined”
Hamza Walker Lindh was born in the United States on February 9, 1981, and spent his childhood in both Washington D.C. and in San Anselmo, outside of San Francisco. Hamza may have been raised Catholic in a white, upper-middle class family, but according to his father “he was born a Muslim... already still, already centred, already disciplined”[i]. At 12, Hamza watched Spike Lee’s Malcolm X with his mother and developed an avid interest in Islam. He began studying, and when he was 16 he travelled by himself to a mosque about half an hour from his home, and requested to take the shahada. According to one of the young Muslims that Hamza met at the mosque, Abdullah Nana, Hamza “was very pious, very dedicated. Within six or seven months, he was wearing full Muslim dress. And after a year and a half, he decided to leave the country. His first objective was to memorize the Koran. The fact that John accepted Islam and within a year and a half had left his country for study in a Third World country--this could only happen with a person who had dedication, discipline, and commitment."[ii]
Indeed, at 17, Hamza travelled to Yemen by himself in order to attend an Arabic language school, he stayed there for about ten months. He spent a few months back with his family in the United States before flying to Pakistan in February 2000, with the intention of studying at a madrassa. Once abroad, Hamza received three weeks of general military training in Northern Pakistan. Much has also been made of a brief, passing meeting between Hamza and bin Laden. Yet as one terrorism expert emphasizes:
“[Hamza] was not Al Qaeda... He trained as a soldier. He wore a Taliban uniform. It has become common to speak of Al Qaeda and the Taliban as if they are the same thing, but they are not. In fact, he was asked by [Al Qaeda lieutenant] Abu Mohammad al-Masri if he wanted to go to the United States or Israel as a martyr. John answered that he came to Afghanistan to serve on the front lines against the Northern Alliance. It's very difficult to refuse in a place like Al Farooq. But he refused."
In a statement he prepared for the court after pleading guilty, Hamza explained why he chose to join the Taliban:
“I went to Afghanistan because I believed it was my religious duty to assist my fellow Muslims militarily in their jihad against the Northern Alliance... I felt that I had an obligation to assist what I perceived to be an Islamic liberation movement against the warlords who were occupying several provinces in Northern Afghanistan. I had learned from books, articles and individuals with first-hand experience of numerous atrocities committed by the North Alliance against civilians. I had heard reports of massacres, child rape, torture, and castration...”[iii]
Hamza may have joined the Taliban with the purest of intentions, but this would mean very little given the poor timing. He reached the front line in Afghanistan on September 6, 2001, just days before the attacks of 9/11, and was carrying both a rifle and grenades. While it is indisputable that the events of 9/11 would eventually bring Taliban soldiers into direct conflict with American soldiers, “the crux of the Lindh’s innocence is that he did not take up arms against his own country”[iv]. Indeed, "if George W. Bush couldn't see 9/11 coming, how the hell could Johnny Walker?"[v]”
Nor would it have been easy for Hamza to simply leave his fighting group once he learned about 9/11 and the US decision to invade Afghanistan. As one author points out, “a lone American wandering Afghanistan at the time was sure to be killed by someone, and of course it would have been absurd for Lindh to inform his commanding officer that he had simply decided to desert. From the little we do know about the intricacies of Taliban military protocol, it does not seem that requests for leave of absence, especially those coming from American converts, were generally looked upon well”[vi].
About a month after 9/11, Hamza and other soldiers were captured by Northern Alliance forces. They were brought to General Rashid Dostum’s military garrison, called Qala-i-Jangi; according to Hamza’s father, Frank Lindh, Dostum “was a former Soviet collaborator and a horrific human rights violator who has the notorious reputation for killing and torturing prisoners.”[vii] On November 25, American soldiers arrived in the courtyard at Qala-i-Jangi. Hamza did not identify himself as an American, despite the fact that doing so might have afforded him better treatment. Later that day, Taliban soldiers initiated a violent uprising that killed CIA officer Johnny “Mike” Spann and hundreds of foreign fighters. During the uprising, Lindh was shot in the upper right thigh; he pretended to be dead for twelve hours, and was eventually dragged into the basement of the makeshift prison by fellow Taliban soldiers. The men stayed in the basement for six days while Dostum’s forces and American bombers tried to lure them out. Grenades were tossed down air shafts and freezing water was pumped in, drowning many men in the process. One author describes the scene:
“Men were dying continually, men were howling in pain and hunger, men were going mad... And still for six days they held out and only began to surrender because they faced the choice of surrendering to Dostum or surrendering to the water, and John Walker is said to have reminded the others that suicide was strictly prohibited by the Holy Koran.” [viii]
Only 85 of the 330 men who went into the basement survived.
Lindh was captured on December 2. He was questioned for a week at an army outpost near the military garrison, and then moved to Camp Rhino on December 7, outside of Kandahar. At Camp Rhino, with the bullet still in his thigh, Hamza’s wrists were bound so tightly in front of him that he began to scream. He was blindfolded, duct-taped to a stretcher without any clothes on and put in a shipping container. Someone scrawled “shithead” on his blindfold and photographed him naked. On December 14, Lindh was transferred to the USS Peleliu, where his wound was finally operated on, and on December 31, Lindh was again moved to the USS Bataan. It was not until January 16, 2002, that Hamza was finally flown back to the United States.
Lindh was perpetually interrogated once he was taken into US custody. As soon as Lindh’s family saw his face televised from the garrison at Qala-i-Jangi, they attempted to provide him access to legal counsel. They hired a lawyer for Hamza and even attempted to fly him to Afghanistan. For his own part, Hamza requested to see a lawyer while he was detained. Despite all of this, he was never granted access to legal counsel while in the custody of the US military. There are also no video recordings of the interrogations, so it is impossible to know the degree to which they were coerced, or if Hamza’s statements were recorded accurately.
Prior to his return to the US, Hamza was also denied any access to his family or the news coverage of his case. “But for us, as his family, it was extremely painful and difficult. I mean, we were trying to make contact with our son to reassure him that we loved him and supported him and that we had hired lawyers to help represent him. But the government was not allowing our messages to get through to him... Meanwhile, we were forced to leave our home here because of the media—the television cameras and so forth…. It is hard to describe now what it was like—sort of a circus atmosphere—in which John was treated as if he was a terrorist, as if he had somehow worked with Osama bin Laden to carry out these attacks against the United States…”[ix]
Hamza finally returned to the US on January 23, but his life at home would never be the same. John Ashcroft and others had publicly condemned him as an Al-Qaeda terrorist and even asserted that he knew about the 9/11 attacks before they happened. The media depicted him as a violent and callous traitor to the United States.
Lindh was initially indicted by a federal grand jury on ten charges. However, after the court scheduled an evidence suppression hearing, it became evident that if Hamza testified honestly about what he was subjected to during his interrogations, his confession might have been excluded from evidence. The Justice Department offered him a plea bargain, dropping eight of ten charges against him. Hamza accepted and pled guilty to violating trade sanctions against the Taliban, and carrying and using firearms during crimes of violence. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison.
Was Hamza’s conviction fair? There are some important aspects of his case that suggest that it was not. First, given the negative media coverage of his story, it is unlikely that he could have received a fair trial. This is perhaps one of the reasons that Hamza chose to plead guilty instead of facing a jury of his peers. His father noted, “at the time [of his trial] there were polls that had been done in the media that showed that something like 70 % of the people in the United States thought that John Lindh should be put to death…It was very clear from these polls, from these data, that it was not possible for John at the time to obtain a fair trial anywhere in the United States, but especially in Northern Virginia just adjacent to the Pentagon.”[x]
Second, some legal analysts contend that the prosecution of Lindh violated his First Amendment right to the Freedom of Association. In an article published in the University of Cincinnati Law Review, James Fantetti points out that “under the First Amendment’s Freedom of Association jurisprudence, John Walker Lindh was, and is, permitted to associate with, and further the legal goals of organizations that engage in terrorism”.[xi] The “Supreme Court made it clear that blanket prohibitions on membership in organizations with both legal and illegal goals are inconsistent with the First Amendment”; thus, given that Lindh has consistently maintained that he joined the Taliban in order to further its legal aims (i.e. supporting its religious goals by opposing the warlords of the Northern Alliance), Lindh is not criminally liable for engaging with the Taliban [xii]. In fact, the evidence shows that Lindh was actually offered the opportunity to further the illegal aims of al-Qaeda (i.e. when al-Masri asked if he wanted to be a martyr), but that he unequivocally turned this opportunity down.
What about his twenty year sentence? His father has one opinion: “I think it’s clear... that the twenty-year sentence is really a proxy for the fact that the government was forced to drop all the terrorism related charges after having gotten the population worked up and convinced that Hamza was a terrorist and was involved in terrorism. There was this sort of vindication thing where people felt that Hamza had to receive a very lengthy prison sentence regardless of the facts, simply to satisfy that vengeance that the government had stirred up against him.”[xiii]
Other War on Terror detainees with Western passports have received relatively more lenient sentences. Yasir Hamdi, a dual American and Saudi Arabian citizen, survived the same massacre as Hamza Walker Lindh. He was held for several years in Guantanamo Bay, until the Supreme Court ruled that it was unlawful to detain him indefinitely without trial. In 2004, Yasir was released into Saudi Arabian custody on the condition that he gave up his US citizenship, and now lives there freely. Australian citizen David Hicks was captured by the Northern Alliance in December 2001 and sold to the United States military for $1000. He eventually pled guilty to a single charge through the military commission system; once he was returned to Australia, he served none months of a suspended seven year sentence. Lindh is still being held, despite the fact that others in similar circumstances have been released. In 2007, Hamza’s lawyers made a public plea for a Presidential commutation of his sentence by citing the Hicks case, but so far these pleas have been unsuccessful.
Finally, what are the conditions that Hamza is facing in jail? He was first held in a medium-security prison north of Los Angeles, and then spent a brief time in the federal Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado. Lindh is currently imprisoned in the Communication Management Unit (CMU) in Terre Haute, Indiana, along with many other Muslim prisoners and other so-called domestic extremists. As part of his plea agreement, he is not permitted to make any statements to the public about his past or present experiences, and visitors are banned from relaying any of these thoughts to the media. Hamza also agreed to drop any claims that he had been tortured by the US military while in Afghanistan or aboard navy ships. As a condition of his imprisonment in the CMU, Hamza cannot have any visitors but his attorneys, parents, siblings, and grandmother, and the FBI maintains the right to read any letter he sends or receives, to monitor his phone calls, and to monitor conversations with his cellmates. Perhaps the most egregious regulation imposed upon Hamza is outlined in his Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) – namely, that Hamza cannot speak Arabic while in custody. Indeed, Hamza “cannot teach; he cannot even pray with an open mouth”[xiv]. In 2010, Lindh and another person in the CMU, Enaam Arnaout, sued the federal government to lift restrictions on group prayer; Muslims in the CMU are only allowed to pray together once a day, and they only have access to this “privilege” during the month of Ramadan.
What can we learn from Hamza’s case? That even the most vilified of War on Terror detainees have more complex stories than has been covered in the mainstream media. Hamza has encountered procedural improprieties as his case has been processed; his sentence is unfair; and the conditions he faces in prison constitute egregious violations of his civil rights. Regardless of what any of us think about Hamza personally, his case demonstrations that even white and middle class Americans face severe difficulties in receiving fair treatment within the judicial system once they are branded as terrorists.
[iii] Nefta foundation pdf, “prepared statement of john walker lindh to the court” oct 4 2002
[iv] 118 Ballard
[vi] Ballard 118
[xi] Fantetti 1395
[xii] Fantetti 1390
Read 3737 times | Like this? Tweet it to your followers!
Published in USA
Latest from CP Editor
Login to post comments
The Guantánamo Memoirs of Mohamedou Ould Slahi
TRAITOR: a Guantanamo guard's journey to Islam
Starving for justice
Are Muslims active enough in the fight against Guantanamo?
Help Lynne Stewart, civil rights lawyer for Muslim defendants, stay alive
How your Schedule 7 swab could help get your family arrested
Why haven't you signed the Shaker Aamer petition?