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Lindh Pleads Guilty to Aiding Taliban

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He faces up to 20 years in prison under surprise plea bargain

MSNBC STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

RICHMOND, Va., July 15 — In a surprise bargain with prosecutors, American John Walker Lindh pleaded guilty Monday to two charges that spared him a possible life prison sentence. “I provided my services as a soldier to the Taliban ... knowingly and willingly, knowing that it was illegal,†said the 21-year-old Lindh, who faces a maximum 20-year sentence.

“I PLEAD GUILTY. I plead guilty, sir,†Lindh told the judge as he entered the plea to one charge of supplying services to the Taliban, the hard-line Muslim government of Afghanistan ousted by a U.S.-led military coalition, and another charge that wasn’t in the original indictment alleging he carried explosives in the commission of a felony.

He originally was charged with 10 counts, including conspiracy to murder U.S. citizens, contributing services to al-Qaida and the Taliban and using firearms during crimes of violence. Three of the 10 counts carried maximum terms of life imprisonment for Lindh, who was captured in early December and transferred to civilian custody in late January.

Under terms of his deal with prosecutors, Lindh, 21, would serve two 10-year prison sentences consecutively and would cooperate fully with U.S. authorities in the investigation of al-Qaida and terrorism.

Lindh’s lawyers agreed not to ask to have the sentence lowered at sentencing, which had not yet been scheduled. Lindh will get credit for the time he’s served since he was jailed in December.

GOVERNMENT DEFENDS PLEA DEAL

The government defended the plea bargain, saying it will bring an appropriate punishment.

U.S. District Attorney Paul J. McNulty, chief prosecutor in the case, called the pleading “an important victory for the American people in the battle against terrorism. This is a tough sentence. This is an appropriate punishment and this case proves that the criminal justice system can be an effective tool in the fight against terrorism.â€

Noting Lindh’s ongoing cooperation, Attorney General John Ashcroft hailed the deal.

“By going to Afghanistan and fighting shoulder-to-shoulder alongside the Taliban, John Walker Lindh allied himself with terrorists who reject our values of freedom and democracy and turned his back on the United States of America,†Ashcroft said. “He will now spend the next 20 years in prison — nearly as long as he has been alive.â€

But Lindh’s father, Frank, noted at a news conference afterward that the government “decided to drop all terrorism charges against my son.â€

“I hope that the government will come around even further and say 20 years is wrong for this boy.â€

Lindh’s mother, brother and sister also spoke in his support at the news conference outside court, as did lead defense attorney James Brosnahan, who noted that Lindh had never fired his gun while serving with the Taliban and had wanted to leave after he learned about the attacks of Sept. 11 but feared for his life if he tried.

‘THIS ISN’T RAMBO’

“This isn’t Rambo we’re talking about,†he said.

The attorney’s comments came just over an hour after he stunned the packed courtroom, apparently including U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, at the outset of what was supposed to be a weeklong series of hearings at which defense lawyers hoped to get statements Lindh made to investigators about al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden thrown out of his trial. “There is a change in plea,†he said.

With his parents and younger sister seated behind him, Lindh then rose in his green prison jumpsuit to face the judge and state in his own words the crimes he committed.

“I provided my services as a soldier to the Taliban last year from about August to November. During the course of doing so I carried a rifle and two grenades,†he said.

After hearing Lindh enter guilty pleas to both charges, and ensuring that he understood the implications of the pleas, Ellis said, “The court accepts your plea and adjudges you now guilty.â€

The outcome of the hearings on the admissibility of Lindh’s statements after his capture in Afghanistan had been expected to have implications for others who, like Lindh, are captured in the war on terrorism and later transferred to the civilian court system. Foreigners held by the United States in Cuba could be affected if any of them are prosecuted by the Justice Department instead of the military.

STATEMENTS AFTER CAPTURE AT ISSUE

Ellis was to have determined whether Lindh should have immediately been advised of his rights when questioned by U.S. forces last December, and whether any damaging statements were made under duress.

While Lindh’s team disputed government accounts of his statements, prosecutors contended he described enlisting in the Taliban; training at a camp the government says was run by al-Qaida; meeting with bin Laden in Afghanistan in the summer of 2001; and learning from others at the camp that the al-Qaida leader had sent operatives to carry out suicide missions against the United States and Israel.

Lindh’s lawyers argued the failure to tell him in Afghanistan of his right to remain silent and have an attorney present violated his rights. They also said Lindh was malnourished, deprived of sleep, bound and blindfolded, conditions that should invalidate anything he said.

Prosecutors responded that the Miranda rule spelling out a defendant’s rights has no place on the battlefield. They argued Lindh was treated as well as U.S. soldiers in the field.

NO DIRECT PRECEDENTS

Legal experts said they were unaware of any direct precedents to guide Ellis. Captured soldiers who are prisoners of war have rights under international treaties, and the military applies the usual civilian warnings to defendants prosecuted under its own military justice system. But POWs and military combatants usually are not switched to the civilian system.

Defense arguments for advising Lindh of his rights even extend to a CNN interview — just after his capture — in which special forces personnel participated in the questioning, Lindh’s lawyers said.

Ellis ruled Friday that the freelance reporter who conducted the interview, Robert Pelton, could not avoid a subpoena to testify. Ellis said journalists don’t enjoy a First Amendment privilege to avoid testimony except in instances involving protection of confidential sources or harassment.

However, the judge said that before Pelton is called, he will re-evaluate whether the reporter’s testimony is still needed after other witnesses appear.

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