STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In this country, the parents of a young Californian who joined forces with the Taliban in Afghanistan are again asking President Bush to commute their son's prison sentence. John Walker Lindh was called the American Taliban. He's been locked up ever since he was captured in Afghanistan and is now serving a 20-year prison sentence.
But as NPR's John McChesney reports, Lindh's parents say others convicted of more serious crimes got lesser sentences.
JOHN McCHESNEY: On January 15, 2002, then Attorney General John Ashcroft led every network newscast as he announced charges against John Walker Lindh. Ashcroft began by saying that Lindh, purposely joined with terrorist, determined to kill Americans.
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Mr. JOHN ASHCROFT (Former Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice): And his allegiance to those fanatics and terrorists never faltered. Not even with the knowledge that they had murdered thousands of his countrymen and not finally in the prison uprising that took the life of CIA agent Johnny Spann.
McCHESNEY: Spann was killed in a riot at the prison where Lindh was captured.
Mr. FRANK LINDH (John Lindh's Father): What happened, in a sense, in late 2001 was that John Lindh became the proxy for Osama bin Laden.
McCHESNEY: Frank Lindh is John's father. He and John's mother, Marylyn Walker, talked with me at Frank's home in San Rafael, California.
Mr. LINDH: The entire country turned on our son as if he were the terrorist, as if he had perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. It was this overwhelming and emotional response and it was like being in a vortex. It was a real nightmare for all of us in John's family.
Ms. MARYLYN LINDH (John Lindh's Mother): I've always called it the big bang in my life. Everything from that point, you know, was a changed world.
McCHESNEY: Mary Lindh has been a stay at home mom for their three children. And Frank Lindh is an attorney for the local utility company. John was their middle child. There's an older son and a daughter who's just began college this year. Both parents were raised as middle class Catholics, as was John until he was attracted to the Muslim faith by seeing the Denzel Washington film about Malcolm X. At 17, he told his parents he wanted to go to Yemen to study Arabic.
Ms. LINDH: I did, with John, research, you know, as best I could. I talked to people about the school that he was looking into to attend. And I got encouragement that it was, you know, that it was safe. You know, many kids go abroad to study, you know?
McCHESNEY: But they didn't know then that he would go on to Pakistan and to Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, the Lindhs have taken a lot of flack for poor parenting from angry e-mailers and for their residence in affluent Marin County. Again, Frank Lyn. Mr. LINDH: All three of our kids have grown up here. The schools are good. The neighborhoods are friendly. It's got a strong community sense. There's good family values in Marin. I find Marin to be a wonderful place to live. There are very wealthy enclaves in Marin, you know, really wealthy people who live here. But most people who lived here are just middle-income people.
McCHESNEY: Frank Lindh says people assume that their son was a terrorist fighting against Americans. But, he said, John was merely a foot soldier in the Taliban army in the fight against another Afghan Army, the Northern Alliance.
And all but one of the charges brought by the John Ashcroft against Lindh were dropped. He wasn't found guilty of terrorism; he was not found guilty of murdering CIA agent Johnny Spann. The judge told Spann's father in court there was no evidence of that. In the end, Lindh pleaded guilty only to violating a Clinton administration regulation which prohibited economic aid to the Taliban.
Ms. LINDH: Well, I was grateful that the deal was presented because John was facing three - I think it was three life terms, and at the time, there didn't seem to be any hope for mercy from, you know, a jury.
McCHESNEY: Lindh's trial had been scheduled on the first anniversary of 9/11 in Northern Virginia near the Pentagon where many had been killed by a terrorist piloted plane.
Lindh's parents and those supporting the commutation of his 20-year sentence point to inequities in the handling of others charged with similar crimes.
David Hicks, an Australian, pleaded guilty to terror charges and was sentenced to only nine months; and then, there's Yasser Hamdi who served with Lindh in the Taliban military. Jesselyn Radack is a former Justice Department ethics adviser who quit when Lindh was denied a lawyer at his interrogation.
Ms. JESSELYN RADACK (Former U.S. Justice Department Ethics Adviser): The administration declared Hamdi an enemy combatant, litigated the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, and then, after they lost, set him free.
McCHESNEY: Hamdi had spent less than four years in detention at Guantanamo. But these three men do share one thing — all of them agreed not to sue the government for what they say were abusive interrogations.
And Lindh can't even talk about it. After the plea bargain, the government bound him and his parents with a gag order. Frank Lindh agrees that such gag orders are necessary to keep convicted terrorists from communicating with each other.
Mr. LINDH: In the case of John Lindh, they're not necessary for any legitimate purpose. They're really just there, I think, to prevent people from getting to know the real John Lindh. It would be wonderful if you could interview John Lindh and find out what kind of person he is. But because of the gag order, he's not allowed to be interviewed, and we're not allowed to tell you what we know or what we hear from John.
McCHESNEY: Without a sentence commutation, even with good behavior, John Lindh faces another 13 years in prison.
John McChesney, NPR News, San Francisco.
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