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Pakistan charges 5 Northern Virginia men in alleged terrorism plot

By Jerry Markon, Karin Brulliard and Mohammed Rizwan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010; A01

Authorities in Pakistan filed terrorism charges Wednesday against five Northern Virginia men and, for the first time, outlined an extensive plot that included plans to fight U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and possibly an attack in the United States.

The men, who lived and grew up in the Alexandria area, were arrested in Pakistan in December. They were each charged with five counts in a special anti-terror court, three of which carry a possible life prison term. Prosecutors say they were in the planning stages of attacks against a Pakistani nuclear plant and an air base and other targets in Afghanistan and "territories of the United States." Defense lawyers said that referred to attacks inside the United States, though the government presented no evidence of such a plot.

Ever since the men were arrested at a time of growing concern about homegrown terrorists, there have been questions about whether they are hardened jihadists, as described by Pakistani police, or humanitarians who left the United States to help other Muslims, as they say.

Pakistani prosecutors said they concluded the men posed a serious security threat.

"They wanted to be part of an operation," said prosecutor Nadeem Akram Cheema, who cited their contact with a recruiter for the Pakistani Taliban. "They and their handlers did not have enough time to plan a meticulous attack and were nabbed before they could."

The men met in Northern Virginia and worshiped at a Fairfax County mosque. Little is known about their plan to leave for Pakistan.

Now, the questions about the men, ages 18 to 24, will play out in a prison and courtroom in the dusty town of Sargodha. Their trial will be before a judge because Pakistan does not have jury trials. Prosecutors can request that the proceedings be secret, and experts said the men are facing a legal system riddled with delays and a history of political interference in high-profile cases.

Attorneys for the men -- Umar Chaudhry, 24; Ramy Zamzam, 22; Ahmad A. Minni, 20; Waqar Khan, 22; and Aman Hassan Yemer, 18 -- said they will mount an aggressive defense contending that they were tortured by Pakistani jailers and had been headed to Afghanistan to aid Muslims displaced by the war there.

The torture allegations became specific Wednesday, as defense lawyers sought an investigation of Pakistani police and intelligence agencies over the men's treatment, and a prominent Muslim group in the United States released a letter it said Zamzam wrote to his mother in Northern Virginia from prison.

The letter said the men were beaten, deprived of sleep, food and water, and threatened with electrocution. "The police here does not care -- they beat the hell out of me and the rest of us until we said what they wanted us to say," Zamzam wrote in the letter, released by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The story of the five men became public when the council got their families in touch with the FBI after they left the United States shortly after Thanksgiving without telling their parents. That triggered an international missing persons case. The men were arrested Dec. 8 at the home of Chaudhry's father, Khalid Farooq Chaudhry, and the terror allegations began immediately.

Pakistani officials would not comment on Zamzam's torture allegation. He was a Howard University dental student whom police in Pakistan have identified as the ringleader of the five.

The men's families and Nina Ginsberg, an Alexandria attorney for them, declined to comment. But Nihad Awad, the Islamic council's executive director, said Wednesday that they were devastated by the charges and are planning to travel to Pakistan for the trial. "We hope for an open, transparent court and due process of law," Awad said.

U.S. and Pakistani officials initially said the men would probably be deported to Northern Virginia, where they are under investigation by the FBI. Lindsay Godwin, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Washington Field Office, said the bureau is coordinating with Pakistani officials and working with the men's families, who are cooperating.

But U.S. officials said investigators are waiting to see how events play out before considering charges in an American court.

At Wednesday's hearing, Judge Anwar Nazir accepted a recommendation from prosecutors to charge the men with counts that include planning to wage war against powers in alliance with Pakistan, planning to commit terrorist acts in the territories of Afghanistan and the United States, and contributing money to banned organizations. The trial's evidentiary phase will begin March 31.

Prosecutors said their evidence included maps in the men's possession of Sargodha Air Base and the Chashma nuclear power plant, near Mianwali, and the men's confessions -- confessions the defense intends to challenge as coerced. Pakistani officials provided few details but have said the men were in contact for months with a mysterious Taliban recruiter named Saifullah, were trying to join al-Qaeda and were hoping to battle U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Legal experts said prosecutors have a relatively low burden of proof under Pakistan's sweeping antiterrorism laws, though it's not clear appellate courts would accept their broad language. The men could be convicted, for example, of raising money for banned groups even if they didn't have direct knowledge the money would be used for terrorist activity, as long as prosecutors showed a "reasonable person" should know.

"If in fact they were naive or just caught up in their desire to be humanitarians, that will not necessarily, at least based on the text of the statute, save them from conviction," said Anil Kalhan, a Drexel University law school professor who has written about Pakistani law and politics.

Mohammed is a special correspondent in Sargodha. Brulliard reported from Mingora, Pakistan. Staff writer Brigid Schulte contributed to this report.

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