Qala-i-Jangi. Hell on Earth.
Bright stems of grass surround the ancient fortress. Pale walls rise like a natural feature north of Mazar-e-Sharif, the medieval city pushing at the northern tip of Afghanistan. Known as "The Noble Shrine", it is a place where Shia and Sunni Muslims alike come to pay their respects at the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law.
This is Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek country. Forever hostile to the Pashtun Taliban who once ruled this shattered state. It is spring now and the thaw is here. The snows have fled. But there was one winter, a terrible winter, just over seven years ago when all sense of nobility was lost.
For six days and nights the cries of the dying rang out from Qala-i-Jangi. American and Afghan alike took part in a terrible massacre. Taliban prisoners were machine-gunned, blown up, burned, starved or drowned amid the piss and shit in the basement where they tried to hide. Men were screaming and praying, then slipping away into the freezing waters, or burning petrol that the soldiers of Northern Alliance warlord, General Dostum, poured down onto them. And it was from that ruin of rubble and flesh that a young American face, dirty, bearded and close to death, emerged onto the world's screens.
The date was 1st December 2001. It was barely two-and-a-half months since the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center had come crashing down. For a 20-year-old Marin County Californian boy, the gloves had just "come off".
"John Walker's Blues" opens with four naked notes on a guitar. Steve Earle's lazy Texas drawl slurs: "I'm just an American boy, raised on MTV." Backed by a slow, even beat, Earle's "American boy" discovers Islam, and the first chorus swells over chiming electric chords: "Ashadu la ilaha illa Allah/There is no God but God," he sings.
"We came to fight the Jihad and our hearts were pure and strong," Earle rasps. "As death filled the air we all offered up prayers/And prepared for our martyrdom/But Allah had some other plan, some secret not revealed/Now they're draggin' me back with my head in a sack/To the land of the infidel."
A couple of years later, about halfway through her 2004 New Year set in New York, the great punk priestess Patti Smith cried out to the audience: ''Happy New Year to John Walker Lindh, who is hopefully doing great studies and great meditations in government prison.''
Both songwriters were trashed in the media and on the airwaves by a 'patriotic press' for honoring someone most Americans considered the epitome of the enemy within.
"Twisted ballad honors Tali-Rat," the headline hollered above The New York Post when Steve Earle's song first played. Smith has been booed and hissed, as well as cheered, when she dedicated one of her songs to a young man now serving a 20-year prison sentence under some of the most draconian conditions imaginable: shunted to Supermax prisons, forbidden contact from most of the outside world, banned (for a time) from speaking or even praying in Arabic, sent to the "hole" (solitary confinement) for his own protection each time a foreign atrocity – London, Madrid – takes place.
That man is John Walker Lindh. Or, as he now calls himself, Hamza, after the uncle of Prophet Muhammad, "peace be upon him". Aka Suleyman al-Faris, aka Abdul Hamid. The American Taliban. A name that good Christian Americans can use to scare their children. "Look!" they can exclaim. "This is what happens when you reject America."
Except John had not rejected America at all.
"If they had called him a child rapist, it couldn't have been worse," says a low, sombre voice. "He was a traitor, a traitor, to them. Something about John's journey, his conversion to Islam, the fact it was so close to 9/11, well ... there was this kind of ... hysteria really. And they buried him. They buried my son."
Frank Lindh is tall. A bearded, dignified presence sitting at the boardroom table of a swish San Franciscan lawyer's office, that of the famed trial attorney Jim Brosnahan. To Frank's right is Marilyn Walker, John's mother – his estranged wife – looking pained and taut as she agrees to a rare media interview. The vista of California's most liberal city opens up 33 floors below us. The faint sound of a siren, or the call of a gull, reaches through the plate glass as I listen to the tales of Islam, a journey from Marin County and the prosperous suburbs over the Golden Gate Bridge, to the very heart of America's obsession with 9/11.
In fact, when I met Frank and Marilyn, it was five years to the week since their son, now 28, was accused by the American government of conspiring to kill Americans and lending material support to Al-Qaeda. Six years since he was captured with a bullet in his thigh at the siege of Qala-i-Jangi fortress, where Taliban soldiers fleeing the US advance into Afghanistan had been tricked into surrendering to their Northern Alliance enemies, led by the feared General Dostum. When the interrogations began, the prisoners rioted. With terrible results.
John Lindh was one of just 86 survivors (from more than 300 prisoners) who crawled, near-death, from a basement which had been flooded by Dostum's troops. Yaser Hamdi, a Saudi-American national who was captured with Lindh, charged with the same offences but (unlike Lindh) later released back to his homeland, recalled the horrors. "It was twenty-four hours asking our God, Allah, for any help. Men crying out to him. Men who were wounded, men who were sick, men who were dying: The Koran tells you how to pray in all situations. People there who couldn't move and couldn't turn to face Mecca still prayed. They prayed in one position until they died."
John Lindh's face was shown on CNN hidden behind dirt, a beard and wild hair ripped free of his turban. The media quickly dubbed him "The American Taliban". Within a day he was strapped naked to a stretcher inside a freezing shipping container, with US troops spitting in his food and scrawling "Shithead" on his blindfold. They told him he was going to die. It was two weeks before medics even treated his bullet wound. And it was almost six weeks that he was held incommunicado, despite repeated attempts by his lawyers and the Red Cross to reach him, whilst he was interrogated. Why? Because a CIA officer called Johnny 'Mike' Spann had become the first American casualty of the war in Afghanistan. And John Lindh was there when he died.
Born in Washington DC in 1981, by all accounts, John Lindh was a smart child, good at languages and music. His parents – Frank, a social worker-turned-lawyer, and Marilyn, a photographer (they are now separated) – loved him a great deal and encouraged his interests. But he was a shy, solitary boy; home-schooled because of chronic diarrhea, most likely caused by a parasite. For a man who would later go to fight for the misogynistic Taliban, John was surrounded by strong women. In addition to having a close bond with his mother and his paternal grandmother, Kate, John was also very close to his sister, Naomi, eight years his junior. “One of my favorite games I used to play with John was with this huge world map we had in our hallway,” says Naomi, now 20. “John would say the name of a country and I would have to go find it on the map and he made it pretty difficult, he would mention countries I’d never heard of like Kyrgyzstan. What 16 year old boy knows where Kyrgyzstan is? I definitely learned more about world geography from John than I ever did in school.”
Marilyn, John’s mother, stayed home with him and his older brother Connell while her husband was finishing law school at Georgetown University. A short time later, Frank started working at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. John was 10 when his father landed a job at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Leiby & MacRae, and the firm transferred him to its San Francisco office. The move to California coincided with the beginning of John’s lifelong bout of intestinal problems, which had a debilitating effect. He became reclusive; he wouldn’t hang out with other kids his age. The major turning point of his young life came when he went to see the Spike Lee movie Malcolm X. The film’s scene at the Haj – showing all Muslims coming together – prompted John, now 12, to begin exploring Islam. He started studying religion with his school tutor. He decided to convert (or “revert” as Muslims call it) when he turned 16. He went to the Islamic Centre in nearby Mill Valley in late 1997 and took the shahada (conversion ritual).
His parents didn’t find out until sometime later when a friend from the mosque called asking for ‘Suleyman’, his new Arabic name. It was a surprise, but his parents tolerated this decision, and, according to his father, even welcomed it. “He was very moved by that image of people coming together, very peacefully,” says his father. “When John converted to Islam, I did not regard it as a negative thing at all.”
“I don’t remember thinking it was weird," adds his sister Naomi. "I was too young to know what it was. I wasn’t even fazed when he began to dress traditionally. Kids at school thought it was bizarre, though.”
John’s journey towards Afghanistan began in earnest when he joined the San Francisco branch of global missionary Islamic group, Tablighi Jama ’at, which means “a group that propagates the faith.” John then asked his parents to let him attend the Yemeni Language Center in Yemen so he could learn Arabic. It would be the only way, he told his parents, that he could become a teacher-scholar in the tradition of Islam. Back then, Yemen wasn’t associated with terrorism.
He left on his travels in July 1998, came home for 10 months, and then returned to continue his studies at the Yemen Language Center in Sana’a. But it was full of foreign students who had travelled just so they could party. He decided to look for another school where the other students took their studies more seriously. He transferred to Al-Imam Islamic University of Sana’a for a total Arabic-immersion programme.
By the following autumn, in 2000, John’s Arabic was good enough to allow him to take the next step: memorisation of the 30 chapters of the Koran, which is a goal for many Muslims (making them a hafiz). For that, he decided, he needed to go to a madrassa (Islamic school) in Pakistan. He traveled around Pakistan for a couple of months and then attended a conference of the Tablighi Jama ’at in Lahore before his Koran classes began. He is remembered with fondness there. But in late night conversations, the other students told John that if he really wanted to be a good Muslim he should go and fight in Kashmir. By standing alongside Muslim brothers fighting for an Islamic homeland he would achieve religious peace.
In the summer of 2001, all his parents knew was that their son was escaping the heat by going up to the mountains for a couple of months. He told them not to worry. “In Bannu, it’s starting to heat up,” he wrote in an e-mail. “And Indian heat is not like Californian heat. I haven’t decided 100% where I’ll go, but this should be worked out in the next two weeks. I’ll try to keep in touch, but in the mountains I may not have e-mail access so I could end up sending you a letter or calling you before I go, then keep in contact by way of postal mail until the end of the summer.” To his parents, this sounded like a reasonable plan.
"Take the gloves off."
That was the order that Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, personally sent to John Lindh's interrogators.
Whilst John was being tortured, the country's highest legal officer, Attorney General John Ashcroft repeatedly called him a "traitor" during press conferences, whilst Rumsfeld claimed (falsely) that he had been taken with an AK-47 in his hands.
It was like a feeding frenzy. Hillary Clinton was on Meet the Press calling John a traitor. Presidential hopeful, Republican Senator John McCain said he should be taken to the site of the 9/11 attacks "to see how he felt". Mayor Giuliani of New York said John should get the death penalty. George Bush's father was quoted saying John was despicable and they should leave his hair and face the way it was and let him wander around the country and see what kind of sympathy he got.
All this before the 20-year old had even stepped inside a courtroom.
"He was facing several life sentences," whispers Marilyn.
"And a jury pool that was completely biased against him," interjects Frank. The judge had decided to hold the trial on the first anniversary of 9/11, in a courthouse just five miles from the site of the attack on the Pentagon.
The media camped outside the family's home in suburban Marin County, where John had spent most of his teenage years. How could they raise this monster in the very heart of suburban America? A boy who rejected America. Perhaps John's search for Islam, they suggested, had something to do with Frank’s being gay and the family split that occurred in 1997. Even the CNN reporter who had discovered John was telling his lawyers that: "I would send their little Johnny to prison".
Meanwhile Frank and Marilyn – who remain friends to this day – watched the events unfold with disbelief, from the moment they realised their son was in Afghanistan (after converting to Islam he had been studying his faith and classical Arabic in madrassas in Yemen, then Pakistan) until his sentencing.
"John was missing for seven months. We got an email in April  saying he was going up into the mountains of Pakistan. He didn't tell us he was going into Afghanistan. And from that time until he came to our attention via the media, on the 1st of December, we had no contact with him, no idea where he was," says Frank.
Marilyn said a cousin saw a blurred image on MSNBC's website and asked her "do you think this is John?"
"That was Saturday first of December," says Frank. "And that's when we started to contact people."
Marilyn told civil liberties campaigner, Anthony Romero, in his book In Defense of Our America: “The whole experience was my own personal big bang. My life came apart and my family was under siege. Everyone keeps trying to find out what was wrong with John. Nothing was wrong with John. Everyone tried to blame us. Nothing is wrong with our family. Instead this was the most striking example of demonizing someone who doesn’t see things the same way as other people I have ever seen.”
Frank threw himself into his work. He says the support of friends, colleagues and even the chairman at PG&E, the state's energy company where he worked as a corporate lawyer, was vital in keeping him sane. It was harder for Marilyn. She was a stay-at-home mom with two other children.
"I was like a vampire going out at night at that time, because I was crying all the time. It was just too hard to be in public and also because, well after we had been in the media, we were recognised ..." she trails off, clearly finding it hard to talk.
And while one family sought access, repeatedly denied, to their captured son, the father of another – Mike Spann – campaigned for his death.
Today America vaunts one of these men as a hero, the other as a demon. Mike Spann became everything that mainstream America wanted: a family man, a former Marine, a hero who would stop at nothing in his quest to guarantee freedom. He was shot by a single bullet to the head, overpowered as he tried to interrogate the Taliban prisoners, including John Lindh, at Qala-i-Jangi. Spann is a hero now. Sites and eulogies populate the internet, lauding his memory.
But John Lindh did not shoot him. He was lying on the dirt with an AK-47 round in his thigh. All around him the shooting and grenades exploded. But John was there in the dirt, leaking blood, until someone dragged him down into a basement.
Spann's father became a fixture at the courthouse, demanding justice. At one point Frank, John's father, approached him at the close of a pretrial hearing, held out his hand "as one father to another" and said something to the effect of "John had nothing to do with Mike's death."
Spann Snr bristled and walked away.
"I should have taken out some of my revenge on him," Spann said later.
Yet at John's trial in Virginia it was specifically mentioned during the judge's summing up that John did not shoot or kill Mike Spann. Spann's father called for John's death, all the same.
"They needed something to show for their war on terror," sneers Marilyn, looking out of the massive plate glass windows. She sighs, and falls silent once more.
All but two charges against John Lindh were dropped. In his court statement, he apologised for his actions, and seemed to offer the explanation that Frank even to this day finds comforting: he was a traveller, a voyager in search of a deeper understanding of his religion, who was naive or tricked into joining a despotic regime.
"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," John said. "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 heard reports of massacres, child rape, torture and castration... I went to Afghanistan with the intention of fighting against terrorism and oppression, not to support it."
He had once met Osama bin Laden, it was true, but had not realised who he was: indeed, he had found his speeches "boring". Having been offered the chance for "martyrdom" operations, he had rejected becoming a terrorist and instead wanted to fight for the Taliban army - just like other Americans had done, in other wars, in the past.
There was a sudden offer of a plea bargain one weekend during the trial. The defense was about to call the soldiers who had mistreated John. It would be extremely embarrassing to a government which denied it ever used torture. So they did a deal and young John Lindh got 20 years. As well as Special Administrative Measures, which only seemed to add to his punishment: no talking to the media, no selling his book, no seeing friends, only limited contact with his family, no speaking Arabic (although this particular restriction has now been relaxed), no letters to or from the outside world.
“The government dropped all terrorism charges, all conspiracy to murder," says Jim Brosnahan, his lawyer. "All these kinds of really outlandish charges were dropped completely and what was left was just the single charge that he had violated the trade sanctions imposed on the Taliban by the American government. And for violating those trade sanctions, and for carrying a weapon, because he was a soldier in the army of Afghanistan, he was sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment.”
It was a show trial for the media and politicians clamoring for a success in the War on Terror. They wanted Bin Laden. What they got instead was a young idealist on a journey into the heart of Islam.
John Lindh was slowly forgotten. America's first victory in the War On Terror. Or an echo, a warning, of the disaster that was to become Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
Today John Lindh – or Hamza Lindh as he likes to call himself – sits in a medium-security jail in Terre Haute, Indiana. He has been shunted from Victorville jail in California to Colorado's Supermax prison last year, and now from there to the mid-West. When the media has deigned to cover him, John has been moved into solitary confinement: almost as though he was being punished, despite the fact that he cannot talk to, or respond, to any charges made. No journalist has spoken to him since his capture in 2001. Under the Special Administrative Measures, the FBI can read his letters and bug his cell, or conversations with other inmates. When he has spoken Arabic, even a greeting to another prisoner, he has been sent to the "hole" (that restriction has now been lifted).
According to those that have seen him, he has becoming increasingly devout, increasingly spiritual. He helps other Muslim inmates with their understanding of the religion. And he withdraws into himself, severs attachments with friends on the outside – so as to help steel himself to the long years ahead.
David Fechheimer, a famous San Franciscan private investigator hired by Brosnahan, tracked John's journeys through Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan -- even to the very foxhole where John told them he had sheltering on the morning of 11 September. He says he has admiration for the young man.
"I thought he was like one of the 19th century English explorers or adventurers: classic Richard Burton or T. E. Lawrence. I think he was on a spiritual or moral quest. Almost as if he wanted to go back in time, back to the heart of his religion. I was impressed by him as a person: we followed everywhere he had been and whenever there was a harder path, he had taken it."
Frank Lindh's main worry these days is that he always gets too emotional when he gets up to speak about John during his lectures.
But he is not ashamed of that – and he is not ashamed of his son. Smiling to himself, he flicks through the childhood photos of John that he stores at the San Rafael home he shares with his partner and John's older brother Connell. They show a peaceful, shy boy – not the one tortured by chronic diarrhoea, home-schooled, unable to socialise with other white kids of the suburbs. Not the one on the personal quest that would see him returned to America in chains.
“John became aware of the Haj after seeing the film Malcolm X,” remembers Frank. “He was very moved by that image of people coming together, very peacefully... In fact, when John converted to Islam, I did not regard it as a negative thing at all.”
Frank revealed that his side of the family, Irish from Donegal, included a number of priests. A staunch Catholic, he had wrestled with his conscience, and in 1997 joined a support group for gay married men at a nearby Church. He dismisses my suggestion that perhaps John had been gay, too, with a snort, but admits they share a deep passion for spirituality.
"He was the kind of child who, from the time he was born, was very peaceful, centred, content. He was blessed with a gentle and wry sense of humour. When he was little, we had a record by a group [Men At Work] who had a song called 'Be Good Johnny' and they used to say on the album," he chuckles to himself, "in the song they would say 'what kind of boy are you Johnny?' and we used to tease him and ask him that. Johnny, what kind of boy are you ..."
To him, John is someone to admire, although he admits “he had the zealous qualities of the recent convert”.
“Of course, he was very naïve I think it’s fair to say, like many 20-year-olds. He was very naïve about the world: who are the good guys, who the bad guys were. But he’s not a terrorist, not a terrorist sympathiser. He very much lives within the traditions of Islam, being gentle and respectful of life... In fact, he’s not an extremist in any sense of the word at all. He’s a well-adjusted, balanced, intellectually curious person.”
As we drive the freeway and narrow roads of Marin County, he points out where actor Sean Penn lives, then with sudden glee remembers how John would walk these streets in his traditional Arabic garb to collect his younger sister from school. We stop for a while, silent, in front of the house where they all used to live.
"That's John's room, right there," points Frank, to the upper story of a grey-painted house, nestled up to a rockface.
"It's been very difficult," he admits as we sit there, speaking with a slight lisp and a sad sparkle to his eyes. "Some people might suggest it's impossible for us as a family to overcome this. In the emotional period after 9/11 he became fixated in peoples' minds as a terrorist. As one of the people who perpetrated the [September 11] attacks."
Was he angry at John?
"At John?!" He sounds shocked.
"Yes ... I have to say honestly, yes I was. Because he went there without telling me. I told him what you did was wrong. You didn't just go to Afghanistan. You brought the entire family to Afghanistan. You're part of a family and you can't make a decision like this on your own and just do it. You may think it was altruistic, but I think it was selfish. So I corrected him."
His voice drops, with emotion. "And I've never told this to anyone before. But at the same time, he is my son, and I love him and it is nobody else's business – that's a conversation between me and my son – the President of the United States, and the Secretary of Defense, and all these other people who came after John it's no concern of theirs. Or other people in America. Because he passed through Hell."
Marilyn still dreams of the family and grandkids he might one day raise: “I would hope he would be able to live, you know, a full healthy normal life. Right now I find that kind of difficult to imagine. I fear this is going to follow him forever.”
But Frank does not give up. In London I had seen him speak at a meeting for a campaign group called Caged Prisoners. He is a one-man campaigner, tirelessly touring America, and the globe, pushing his son's case.
We had visited a local high-school a day earlier, riding the BART train out to the suburb of Lafayette. The son of Frank's friends, the Eisenmanns – a Jewish family – had arranged for him to speak about John's case.
"Just imagine if the kid had had no parents like you," says Tina Eisenmann. "Poor parents …"
"… they would have executed him. Killed him. No doubt about it,’ finishes the thin, harried-looking figure of ‘Hamza’ Lindh’s father.
How does a family survive one of its number being labeled a terrorist and enemy of America?
"I was 12 when John was found," says Naomi Lindh, John's younger sister. "I remember the morning my dad told me he was found with the Taliban... It was an out of body experience in a way. In America there seems to always be a random family in some kind of turmoil in the news. Seeing John and my parents on the news and in tabloids was surreal. It was really upsetting."
"The more I think about it, my relationship with John really hasn’t changed through this ordeal. I’ve never thought of treating him differently now that he’s in prison. We still tease each other like it’s nobody’s business and if we had contact visits I would definitely sock him in the arm for some of the things he says, but that's how we get along. It is difficult to see him in that type of environment but for now that’s the only way we can see him: it wouldn’t be fair to him to give into the circumstances and treat him any differently than as if he were at home with us."
John's older brother Connell adds that he couldn't understand his conversion to Islam. However, his decision to fight with the Taliban "was motivated by a deeply-felt duty to help the helpless i.e. the people of Afghanistan who suffered so many years of misgovernment and oppression. Of course this was spectacularly ill-timed and John was horribly misled by Taliban recruiters."
For his friends, like Abdullah Nana, an imam the same age who teaches at the Islamic Center in nearby Mill Valley, John's capture was the start of a nightmare period.
"There were all these guys swarming around here, asking who is the next John Walker in training. As for the media, they were saying this masjid, the mosque, was a centre of Islamic terrorism, and training."
He looks around warily, ever-suspicious of someone listening in. "This is where John accepted Islam. I introduced myself to him, I made friends with him. We used to talk a lot. We became friends. He was very quiet, unassuming... he was a good example to other Muslims."
Nana admires the fact the fact that John not only "accepted Islam" but within a year and a half had left his country for study in a Third World country. "This could only happen to a person who had dedication, discipline, and commitment."
His father, Ibrahim Nana, adds that that made the shock at John's capture all the more stark: "It was totally not John to be doing what he was doing. He just didn't fit that macho stereotype image."
Both men now consider John Lindh to be a political prisoner. As I hear many times from John's supporters, they repeat the mantra: "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time." Both claim their lives have also been made more difficult as a result of their connection to him, and the hostility of government and other agencies.
But looking at Abdullah today – he travelled to South Africa to further his religious studies, instead of Yemen or Pakistan, and is now married with a family – you can't help but wonder if this too could have been John Lindh. Safe back in America, teaching, leading prayers. After all, John wanted to be a teacher: he said so in his court statement. His parents think he would make a fine spiritual leader. But he did not return. And when he did, it was in chains.
Rohan Gunaratna, a respected terrorism scholar from Sri Lanka, interviewed Lindh for more than eight hours at the request of his defense team. He initially warned them that he believed that Lindh was almost certainly a member of Al Qaeda. The defense, undeterred, pressed him to meet the young suspect, and Gunaratna eventually agreed. The encounter surprised him.
"I have interviewed maybe two hundred terrorists over the past few years," he told The New Yorker magazine in 2003, "and I am certain that John Walker Lindh has never been a terrorist, and never intended to be one. A terrorist is a person who conducts attacks against civilian targets. John Walker Lindh never did that. He trained to fight in the Afghan Army, against other soldiers. He was not a member of Al Qaeda. He didn't know much about Al Qaeda, and he was no exception. Dozens of others whom I've met who went to train and fight in Afghanistan also were not part of Al Qaeda." He laughed. "It's a secret organization."
Gunaratna believes that Lindh "presents no national-security threat. He's been completely misrepresented to the American people."
Meanwhile, in jail, Shakeel Syed found John to be "an extremely thoughtful kid". Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, was a visiting imam under the prison chaplain system. He met and knew John for several months whilst Lindh served his time in Victorville prison.
"He was a humble, private man, well-liked by the staff and the other inmates. In the beginning there was some resentment from the rank and file folks because he was portrayed as this monster enemy combatant."
Indeed there is evidence to suggest John was attacked by a white supremacist inmate. Syed is extremely critical of the restrictions placed on John. "No other person has had such extreme measures placed on them. That was a first. He couldn't do the traditional things a Muslim is expected to do – like greet others in Arabic, for example. Fellow Muslims [prisoners] would greet him "Salaam Aleikoum" and he would respond. On one occasion he was picked up and isolated for 30 days. When this was brought to my attention I was extremely disappointed."
"He was extremely compliant with all these restrictions, though. I had to go through this for one or two days when I visited. He has to go through this for the next 15 or so years."
There is anger in Syed's voice. Clear anger and perhaps disbelief that a government could so vindictively punish one young man. As Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and author of the book, In Defense of Our America (about miscarriages of justice carried out under the War on Terror), would later tell me from his New York offices:
"This was Abu Ghraib. Abu Ghraib. A clear warning before all that came out. And the American public swallowed it. This is what happens when the Administration changes the legal system."
If he had been picked up at any other time – not so close to 9/11 Romero believes – John would probably have spent very little time in jail. "The government pulled a PR circus to make their actions justified," he claims.
Since John was sentenced, Saudi-American national Yaser Hamdi – subject to almost the same charges – has been released. More recently, so too was Guantanamo prisoner David Hicks, the so-called 'Australian Taliban'. Under a deal with the US authorities in Guantanamo, Hicks pleaded guilty to the charge of providing material support to a designated "terrorist" organisation (Al Qaeda): a far greater crime than John's. Despite these key differences in John's favor, he remains imprisoned on a 20-year sentence, while Hicks is home with his family after completing nine months. The former chief prosecutor of the Guantanamo Bay trials, Colonel Morris Davis, has given startling evidence that he faced political pressure to prosecute Hicks, even though he did not want to proceed against him because the charges were not serious enough. And unlike America, the Australian public has proved generally sympathetic to Hicks' predicament.
Meanwhile, it has been a lonely battle for Frank and Marilyn Lindh. Many Muslim groups have been silent. Although there is now a slow trickle of media support calling for John Lindh’s release, the years stretch ahead. Every year at Christmas, John Lindh’s lawyer, Jim Brosnahan, helps John file a petition for commutation of sentence to the President. Each year it is turned down.
Leaked reports in the US media suggested furious lobbying going on behind the scenes this time around, as George Bush was preparing to leave office (departing Presidents traditionally issuing several pardons on their last day in power).
Speaking just before Christmas, Frank Lindh said: "When John was first picked up, President Bush was actually the only public official in the United States who spoke in a sympathetic way about John. There was something about John’s situation, his religious conversion and so forth that I think really did touch him… We think that this is the time when the President will revisit those original feelings that he had – the feelings of sympathy – and find it in his heart to release John from prison."
It made no difference though. Bush left, and John remained. However in March 2009 the Federal authorities announced that many of the restrictions surrounding John Lindh were being eased. He may be allowed to tell his story for the first time.
Jim Brosnahan said that among other things the changes will allow Lindh to contact and meet with people other than his attorneys and relatives. Brosnahan said the current restrictions have prevented Lindh from telling his side of the story. "I think that as time has gone by people have begun to realize, inside the government and to some extent outside the government, that John was just in the wrong place at the wrong time," Brosnahan said.
Marilyn was circumspect when we last talked. With a fatalistic sigh, she said, “I just don’t know if anyone will ever be able to tell the true story of John. What happened. You know what? I don’t think he would anyway. Who’s going to be believe him?! That’s what pains me so much. There was so much damage to him early on, by people who were so callous about it.”
Meanwhile lives continue to be lost in Afghanistan, as a resurgent Taliban pushes all the way through to the outskirts of Kabul. There may be no sight today of the corpses that once fell as a bitter harvest in the bright fields of Mazar-e-Sharif, but their legacy still haunts not just the Lindhs: but America itself.
This article originally appeared in the Telegraph Magazine and in The National © 2009.
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