Five N.Va. men could face terrorism charges in Pakistan

By Shaiq Hussain and Jerry Markon
Saturday, December 26, 2009

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Pakistani authorities plan to recommend criminal charges in that country against five Northern Virginia men arrested for possible terrorist ties, a development that could delay their handover to the United States but is unlikely to affect potential charges in a U.S. court, officials said Friday.

The five have been in detention since their arrest two weeks ago but have not been criminally charged. A senior police official in the city of Sargodha, where the men were arrested, said Friday that investigators had concluded that they intended to join extremist organizations and "get involved in terrorist acts."

Police plan to recommend terrorism charges to the court after they conclude their investigation, said the official, Tahir Gujar. The court will ultimately decide whether to prosecute the suspects.

Terror charges, if proved, could lead to lifetime prison sentences. A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Islamabad declined to comment on the developments and referred questions to the Justice Department.

U.S. law enforcement officials played down the developments, saying that an FBI investigation of the men would continue and that charges in Pakistan probably would not affect any decision on whether to bring a criminal case in the United States.

FBI Supervisory Special Agent Katherine Schweit, spokeswoman for the Washington field office, said the FBI "continues to work with Pakistani authorities on the issues involving the five Americans. The bureau has always and will continue to pursue investigations involving American persons or actions against American interests where appropriate, no matter where those involved are located."

Another federal law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said the Justice Department "can obviously file charges regardless of what another country does." Other officials pointed out that Pakistani police have been saying for days that they are considering charges.

The FBI is investigating the suspects' possible terrorist ties, and officials have said the Justice Department is likely to consider charges including material support of terrorist organizations. But any decision is weeks, and possibly months, away.

An attorney for the men's families, Nina Ginsberg, said Friday that her clients never saw any signs that their sons were involved in radical activities or beliefs and want them returned safely to the United States. She declined to comment on possible charges.

Federal officials said that if both countries file charges, the two governments would likely try to work out which country brings the case, as sometimes happens in the United States when the Justice Department and state authorities charge the same person with a crime.

Spokesmen for the U.S. attorney's office in Alexandria, where any criminal case would probably be brought, and the Justice Department in Washington declined to comment. U.S. and Pakistani officials have said previously that the men would probably be deported to the United States.

The men, ages 18 to 24, left the United States shortly after Thanksgiving without the knowledge of their parents, who later alerted authorities that they were missing. Pakistani police and intelligence officials have said the men -- Ramy Zamzam, 22; Ahmad A. Minni, 20; Umar Chaudhry, 24; Waqar Khan, 22; and Aman Hassan Yemer, 18 -- were in contact for months with a Taliban recruiter.

On Friday, a court in Sargodha granted police 10 more days to hold the men for additional questioning. A police official, Amir Abbas, told the judge that the men had mentioned a Pakistani nuclear power plant in northwest Punjab province in a saved message in their joint e-mail account but said that more evidence needed to be collected.

Officials say the men hoped to join al-Qaeda and work with militant groups to battle U.S.-led forces across the border in Afghanistan.

The detainees are accused of using Facebook and YouTube Web sites to try to connect with extremist groups in Pakistan.

"We have seized maps of a Pakistan air force base in Sargodha and some sensitive installations at Chashma Barrage outside the town," police official Nazir Ahmad said Friday, according to the Associated Press. The Chashma Barrage includes a major water reservoir and large power plants that were installed by China.

Markon reported from Washington; Shaiq Hussain is a special correspondent. Correspondent Karin Brulliard in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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