Muslim-American Men Sentenced On Terror Charges

Five Muslim-American men from the Northern Virginia area were sentenced each to ten years in prison by a Pakistan court. The young men were arrested in Pakistan last December and were convicted for conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks. Nihad Awad, Executive Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and Ali Khan, a Pakistani-born attorney and professor at Washburn University School of Law, discuss the charges and reaction in the United States.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

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First, though, five American Muslim men will spend 10 years laboring in Pakistani prisons, following their conviction and sentencing for conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks. The men, all in their 20s are from the state of Virginia. They were arrested at Pakistan's Punjab province in December and had traveled there, according to prosecutors, to join the fight against the American military in Afghanistan. They were sentenced today.

With me to talk about the men, their families, and what they all face in coming years, we have two voices: Nihad Awad is the executive director of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations. He's been in touch with the families of the five convicted men.

Also on the line: Ali Khan, a Pakistani-born attorney who moved to the United States. He is now a professor at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. Welcome.

Professor ALI KHAN (School of Law, Washburn University): Thank you for having me.

COX: Nihad Awad, beginning with you, tell us how the families of these men have been dealing with this the arrest, the convictions and now the sentences.

Mr. NIHAD AWAD (Executive Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations): Well, I had been talking to some family members since yesterday and today. Yesterday they were very helpful that the five young men will be found innocent and that they would freed today. And this morning they were in total shock and sadness that this is not the case and they were found guilty in a court, which they believe is not a fair trial because it was done in secrecy without even access to the media or observers or family members to be inside the courtroom.

COX: Let me make sure that I'm clear on this. Were they convicted and sentenced on the same day?

Mr. AWAD: Well, it is unclear to me, but it seems that, yes, the verdict and the sentence were coupled in the same decision by the same judge.

COX: Professor Ali Khan, would you talk about the trial process that these five men went through? What do you know about it?

Prof. KHAN: Well, I think the terrorist trial in Pakistani courts is slightly different from a regular criminal trial. This trial was done in secrecy probably for security reasons. There was no access to the court either for the press or the public or for the families. And, yes, it was one judge trying five Americans for conspiracy to commit terrorist acts and fund a terrorist organization.

And it's very normal for the court to conduct a trial, convict the persons and sentence the defendant the same day.

COX: Can they appeal?

Prof. KHAN: Yes. The appeal process is available. I think they will have at least two shots at appeal. One to the Lahore high court and then later to the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

COX: Were they represented by court-appointed council or was the United States Embassy involved in getting them legal representation? If you know.

Prof. KHAN: Well, I think under international law and treaties between the two countries, the defendants had a right to seek council from the American Embassy in Islamabad. And I think the embassy was in touch with the defendants. But I'm not sure to what extent they contributed towards their defense.

COX: Nihad Awad, let's go back and talk about these five young men, just who they were, how they grew up here in northern Virginia and what were they doing there?

Mr. AWAD: Well, probably, as we all know, the four of the five, to my knowledge, were born and raised here in the United States. One was born overseas, but came here when he was about three years old. So, were raised here, lived in Virginia, went to school, to my knowledge and they were active members of the community, very good students with good reputation in terms of community service, interfaith work and so on.

We ourselves were not familiar with them except when they disappeared and their families contacted us. And working with the family, we reported their disappearance in conjunction with the family, to the authorities, just to look for them because their disappearance was sudden.

Beyond that, the main concern for the families was their fair trial they believe it was not. There were serious allegations of torture where the five complained about being mistreated, deprived from food and water for a long time and being assaulted by security officers in Pakistan. These were serious allegations. We requested both the Pakistani government and the American government to investigate these allegations and make sure that this court is open for the public, even in the United States when there are anti-terrorist trials, they will be open to the public, to the media, to observers, to family members to see that there's due process of law and it's happening in a transparent manner.

COX: Let me stop you there because I'd like to get clear on something that I asked you that I haven't gotten an answer just yet and that is what were they doing there?

Mr. AWAD: We do not know their motives. Their families believe that they went there on humanitarian reasons. That, of course, you know, is subject to investigation. So I cannot comment further because we do not know exactly what they were planning to do or were doing.

COX: One of the fathers of one of these five men was quoted in the paper as saying that he believes that his son misunderstood the tenets of jihad and may have gone in a direction that the father thought was the wrong direction. Can you speak to that?

Mr. AWAD: Well, no, unfortunately I cannot because it is unclear to us. It is only important for the court or for media to be able to interview these individuals and exactly find out what they were planning to do and what their intentions were and if they have taken an action to assert the allegation of the prosecution there.

COX: Professor Ali Khan, you studied the case. Talk in broader terms, if you can, about what happened here and whether this is suggestive of anything larger in terms of young Muslim men in this country going there to participate either in a positive or potentially negative way.

Prof. KHAN: Yes. I think my view is that a lot of young Muslims everywhere in the world, including here, they are very angry over what the United States is doing in Afghanistan, what it has done in Iraq and what it is doing with drone attacks on Waziristan.

I think the young Muslims, they feel that Muslim governments are too weak to stand up to the United States and therefore they have to take law in their hands. I think we have Shahzad, who was American another American caught trying to bomb Times Square in New York City.

So I think there is a broader underlying rage and anger among young Muslim that Muslim populations and Muslim countries are being attacked and aggression is being committed against them and they have to do something about it.

COX: Let me follow that question up with you, Ali Khan, on this. The U.S. Embassy generally gets involved diplomatically to help American citizens abroad. But a U.S. Embassy official in this particular case has been quoted as saying that: We respect the decision of the Pakistani courts with regard to their conviction and sentencing. Does that suggest that the U.S. believes that these five men are terrorists?

Prof. KHAN: I think so. I think if the U.S. Embassy that the case against these five Americans was completely baseless, I think they would have raised a big storm that these innocent Americans are being, you know, arrested and prosecuted for no reason. So I think that's one reason.

The other reason, which bothers me a little bit is that if these five Americans were white Americans, I think the media and the government and the embassy would have been much more active in making sure that these defendants get their, you know, proper rights. At least the trial is fair and everything is in order.

But I'm very disappointed and I don't know if it racism. I hope it is not. But I'm a little disappointed because the interest in this case from the American side has been lukewarm.

COX: Ali Khan, a Pakistani-born attorney who is now a professor at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. And Nihad Awad is the executive director of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Gentlemen, thank you both.

Prof. KHAN: Thank you.

Mr. AWAD: Thank you.

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