Five American Men Face Terror Charges In Pakistan

Five men from the Washington, D.C., area were formally charged by a Pakistani court on Wednesday with multiple counts of terrorism-related crimes. The young men were arrested in Pakistan in December. Host Michel Martin speaks with Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, about the latest developments.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we hear from you. It's our weekly backtalk segment and it's coming up in a few minutes.

But first, we go back to the case of those American Muslim men who have been accused of trying to link up with a terrorist group in Pakistan. On Wednesday, a Pakistani court charged them with multiple counts of terrorism-related crimes. The defendants all young Muslim men from the Washington, D.C. area pleaded not guilty to the charges. The most serious of the of the crimes carries a punishment of life in prison.

The case dates back to December when the five were arrested in Pakistan. Concerned family members had reported them missing and alerted the Council on American-Islamic Relations that the men were likely in Pakistan. CAIR, in turn, contacted U.S. authorities and they have followed the matter closely since.

So, for an update, we called Nihad Awad. He is CAIR's executive director. He's with us now. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

Mr. NIHAD AWAD (Executive Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, the five men, just to recap, are ranging in age from 18 to 24 years old. You have been in contact with their families. What have these young men been telling their families about their conditions and the conditions that led to their arrest?

Mr. AWAD: Well, the only way they communicate among themselves is through writing and these letters are delivered through the State Department. They've been complaining about the way they have been mistreated from the beginning, blindfolded, led to places where they don't know and they were beaten. They were deprived from food, water for at least 36 hours. And allegedly, they were forced to say what the Pakistani government wants them to say. And they were even threatened with electrocution. Of course, these are serious allegations of torture that I believe need to be investigated by both the Pakistani and American government.

MARTIN: You have a copy of the letter that one of the young men wrote to his relatives. It was dated March 10th, could you just read the first couple of lines?

Mr. AWAD: Well, it says that on December 8th they were kidnapped by some men and these people, meaning the police, pointed guns at them and started beating them after blindfolding them. And one of the five says they beat the hell out of me and others.

MARTIN: Can you tell us which young man this was? Which of the young men wrote this?

Mr. AWAD: The...

MARTIN: You prefer not to identify the particular person who wrote this.

Mr. AWAD: Yeah.

MARTIN: But you are sure that this is an authentic letter from one of the detainees.

Mr. AWAD: Yeah. The mother sent it to me after she received it on the same day, which was, like, a couple of days ago.

MARTIN: Well, you know, the ones that interpret this in different ways, I mean, they are saying that they were kidnapped. If they were lawfully arrested, then they were lawfully arrested.

Mr. AWAD: Yeah.

MARTIN: And one could also argue that if guns were used, that might be legitimate if they felt that they were engaged in planning a terrorist attack, you know, that might be a reasonable precaution that law enforcement would make.

Mr. AWAD: Right. Yeah. They say the ones who arrested them did not have any uniform. But, yeah, eventually it is the Pakistani authorities or intelligence agencies.

MARTIN: There has been some discussion about whether the men should have been returned to the United States to face charges. What is the status of that conversation? I mean, they have been charged in Pakistan and I just wondered whether there was any further discussion about bringing them to the United States to face charges.

Mr. AWAD: Yeah, I truly don't understand why they are there except for the fact that they were arrested in Pakistan and they have been charged in Pakistan. But the fact that the parents and community leaders came forward and worked with the government to look for these five people who were missing, I think families and community leaders expect the U.S. government to intervene, at least to ensure that they're not tortured and they are safe.

And there will be due process and these courts would be open. The trials will not be conducted in secrecy and to ensure their safety. And the least is to maybe facilitate communication between parents and these young people through a phone call just to make sure that they are okay.

MARTIN: But they have not had any oral contact with these young men. The only contact has been through letters like this?

Mr. AWAD: Exactly.

MARTIN: Do they have legal counsel?

Mr. AWAD: They have legal representation. They we do not know how the Pakistani judicial system works. Do they have one lawyer representing all of them or do they have, you know, five lawyers representing them individually? We do not know.

MARTIN: How come you don't know?

Mr. AWAD: All what we see in the press is one lawyer being quoted representing the defendants.

MARTIN: The families don't know?

Mr. AWAD: The families are only one parent Im aware of that she's trying to contact the lawyer and she's been in touch with him. But the others, they seem to have difficulty. They've been trying to communicate with the Pakistani authorities. We ourselves have met with the Pakistani ambassador and he's been graciously receiving us and we requested that if he can just facilitate communication so that the families know exactly what's going on. One parent is trying to travel there to meet and see what kind of legal representation their son has.

MARTIN: Are these five young men all American citizens?

Mr. AWAD: They're all five American citizens, most of them born and raised in Northern Virginia.

MARTIN: So, presumably the American embassy has been in contact with them.

Mr. AWAD: Yeah. The American consulate has been transferring and maybe sending the messages between the detainees and their parents. But, again, as you said, none of the families had been able to communicate verbally or hear the voice of their sons.

MARTIN: So the trial is set to start at the end of this month, what do you expect to happen?

Mr. AWAD: Well, again, I hope that it will be an open trial. There will be no secrecy, that these serious allegations of torture will be investigated and should not be dismissed. Because I heard some commentators yesterday saying, all these possible al-Qaeda recruited men were told, if you are caught just claim or allege torture.

Well, what if they were tortured? And what if confession has been exacted under duress? I believe if this is what happened, then all these confessions would be thrown out of court and these people might be found innocent, not guilty. So, we should not take it lightly. They are American citizens. And we know that the judicial system in Pakistan has been in shambles for some years and there have been political interference and also there has been lots of resistance.

So, I'm sure that the judicial system in Pakistan is working itself to be a good mother. But in the midst of this, we want to make sure that American citizens are not tortured and there's an open trial, it's not secret and there's due process of law.

MARTIN: And, finally, I do take your point. And you're right, I don't know what the legal system there is either. On the other hand, one has to assume that if they had legitimate reasons for being in Pakistan, they would have informed their families.

Mr. AWAD: Yeah, I mean...

MARTIN: They would not have just disappeared. So...

Mr. AWAD: They were charged with crimes that if everything just goes as smoothly as we see in the press, they may get life in prison. However, if they were tortured and their confessions were extracted by force in any credible legal system, these allegations would be thrown out of court and these people would be found innocent.

MARTIN: Well, if you would keep us posted, we'd be grateful. Nihad Awad is the executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you so much.

Mr. AWAD: Thank you.

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