By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2010; A12
For the first time since they were arrested Dec. 9, the five young Muslim men from the Alexandria area facing life in prison in Pakistan on terrorism charges presented their side of the story Saturday, handwritten on pink paper and delivered to the judge in a closed court inside a high-security prison in the eastern Pakistani city of Sarghoda.
Throughout the prosecution's case, which concluded Saturday, Pakistani police have maintained that the five secretly and abruptly left their homes, families, college classes and jobs to wage jihad against Americans in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States. Police and court records charge that the five made contact with a known al-Qaeda operative through social-networking Web sites and that they communicated via a shared e-mail account: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The statements of the five men, which their defense attorney provided to The Washington Post on Saturday, the first day of defense proceedings, say their intentions in traveling secretly to Pakistan were motivated by friendship, "fun" and a "noble" desire to help Muslim orphans in Afghanistan. All five, in statements so similar that they mostly read word for word, said the idea for the journey was hatched in 2008 after the group watched the movie "Kite Runner" at Umar Chaudhry's house -- what they called the usual hangout of the youths, who lived in the same neighborhood off Route 1.
The movie "showed the suffering of the Afghani people, in particular the homeless and orphans," wrote Aman Yemer, who, at 18, is the youngest of the group. "We were very much affected by the living conditions of our brothers and sisters living overseas and hoped to help them one day." He and the others thought that would never happen, he wrote, because Afghanistan is such a dangerous place and their parents are "very protective."
The reason that they left secretly, all five -- including 20-year-old Ahmed Minni -- wrote, was that they were sure their parents would never give permission. Their parents, alarmed by their disappearance during Thanksgiving weekend, notified the FBI and handed over a video one had made showing images of the United States at war in Muslim countries. A local Muslim leader who saw it described it as a "farewell video."
In a line echoed by the others, Yemer wrote that once they decided to go, they were convinced that their parents would be proud of them for the "nobility" of their humanitarian actions. Waqar Khan, 22, wrote that he even thought about joining the Red Crescent.
When Chaudhry, 25, announced in the summer of 2009 that his parents had arranged a marriage for him in their native Pakistan, Ramy Zamzam, 22, an honors student at Howard University dental school, wrote: "suddenly it was as if 2 things were linking up for us for our favor: we could go to Pakistan and enjoy ourselves and furthermore get an opportunity to visit Afghanistan and perhaps work at an orphanage."
All five denied being terrorists. All said they have been tortured. Two wrote of their blindfolds falling off during a beating.
"It doesn't make any sense that I would leave my family, friends, education and comfortable, happy life to live in a small cave," Yemer said.
Defense attorney Hassan Katchela said he will present evidence on June 9 that the charges are "totally fabricated."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.