N.Va. men ordered held for interrogation in Pakistan

By Jerry Markon, Shaiq Hussain and Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 15, 2009; 9:33 AM

Five Northern Virginia men who were arrested in Pakistan last week as part of a terrorism probe appeared in court for the first time Tuesday and were ordered held for up to 10 days of interrogation, Pakistani officials said.

The hearing in Sargodha came in response to Monday's ruling by a higher Pakistani court that the five men cannot be deported until a judge reviews the case. The Sargodha court told police to report back on the investigation of the men within 10 days.

The men, ages 18 to 24, traveled overseas just after Thanksgiving without telling their families, triggering an international missing-persons case. Police and intelligence officials have said the men were in contact for months with a Taliban recruiter and were trying to join up with al-Qaeda. They were hoping to work with jihadist groups and battle U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Pakistani officials have said. U.S. law enforcement officials are considering criminal charges against the men but have said nothing is imminent.

The five -- Ramy Zamzam, 22; Ahmad A. Minni, 20; Umar Chaudhry, 24; Waqar Khan, 22; and Aman Hassan Yemer, 18 -- are all Muslims from the Alexandria area. They were transferred Saturday from Sargodha to Lahore, where they were being questioned by the FBI. Pakistani officials had said they wanted more time to interrogate the men about their possible radical ties in Pakistan.

The men's friends and spiritual advisers in Northern Virginia have said they never saw a sign of radical activities or beliefs.

Monday's ruling and Tuesday's court action might complicate the handover of the men -- all of whom are U.S. citizens -- to American authorities, legal and political experts said.

Pakistan's high court in Lahore on Monday ordered the Pakistani government to submit a detailed report about the case by Thursday and barred the FBI from participating in the investigation. That court ruling was in response to a petition from a Pakistani human rights activist known for filing legal briefs on behalf of terrorism suspects.

Pakistani officials played down the ruling's significance, saying that they were continuing to coordinate with U.S. officials and that the Americans would eventually be returned to the United States to face possible criminal charges. None of the five has been criminally charged. Chaudhry's father, Khalid, was also arrested and remains in police custody

Experts said the high court ruling on Monday reflects many Pakistanis' sensitivities to the growing U.S. troop presence in the region and the assertiveness of the country's increasingly independent judiciary. Pakistani judges have defied the will of the elected government in several recent high-profile cases, and dozens of judges who were fired in 2007 by Pakistan's former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, were reinstated after street protests in March.

The high court ruling "will slow down any deportation. It will complicate it," said Tayyab Mahmud, an expert on Pakistani and international law at Seattle University's law school. Because Pakistani law requires officials to present cases to a court within 24 hours of an arrest, he said, "very strictly speaking, the court is within its right."

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Monday that the Pakistani high court ruling "sounds to me to be a reasonable judicial procedure," but he declined to comment on how it might affect the transfer of the men to U.S. authorities.

He indicated that Pakistani officials are declining to follow a key part of Monday's court order: that the investigation be carried out by Pakistani authorities and not any foreign agency. "We've had excellent cooperation with the Pakistani authorities both on the diplomatic side and on the law enforcement side," Kelly said.

The petition before the Pakistani court, filed by human rights activist Khalid Khwaja, said the men's arrest violated Pakistani law and demanded their release "from their illegal confinement in the interest of justice, equity and conscience."

Tariq Asad, an attorney for Khwaja, said in an interview that because the men were arrested on Pakistani soil, "we pray before the court that if they are already being questioned by the FBI then that should be stopped and any probe ought to be carried out by the Pakistani investigators."

The FBI, which has been questioning the men for at least several days, declined to comment on the court's action.

Hussain reported from Pakistan. Witte reported from Kabul. Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company