5 N.Va. men convicted on terrorism charges in Pakistan, given 10 years in prison

By Shaiq Hussain and Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 25, 2010; A01

SARGODHA, PAKISTAN -- Five Northern Virginia men were convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison by a Pakistani court Thursday in a case that focused U.S. concern about citizens linking up with foreign extremist groups.

Pakistani and U.S. law enforcement officials suspect the five traveled to Pakistan in hopes of joining insurgent groups active in battling U.S. forces in Afghanistan, although they were apparently turned away. One had left behind a video that investigators said made clear his violent intent.

Their case is among a handful over the past year in which American Muslims are accused of seeking to attack the United States or its interests overseas. Pakistan has been at the center of several such cases, including that of would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, who pleaded guilty this week in a Manhattan federal court to packing a Nissan Pathfinder with explosives and attempting to detonate it.

The five men who were convicted in Pakistan have not faced charges in the United States, but the FBI is looking into the men's activities. Investigators have been waiting to see how events play out in Pakistan, partly because evidence from the trial could give them more leads, U.S. law enforcement officials said.

It is unclear whether the men will be charged in a U.S. court, although officials said the verdict in Pakistan will have little bearing on that decision.

The men -- Umar Chaudhry, Ramy Zamzam, Ahmad A. Minni, Waqar Khan and Aman Hassan Yemer -- did not carry out any attacks but were convicted of criminal conspiracy and funding a banned terrorist organization. The charges carry sentences of 10 and five years, respectively, but the judge ordered that the terms be served concurrently.

An attorney for the men questioned the legitimacy of the verdict and accused prosecutors and the judge in the closed-door trial of ignoring key evidence. He promised an immediate appeal.

In the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, off Route 1, the families of the five men were described as "devastated" by the news. "They had hoped for justice," said Alexandria lawyer Nina Ginsberg, who is working with the men and their families in the face of potential prosecution by the U.S. government. "This was a rigged trial that appears to have been based on fabricated evidence in a secret court with a preordained result."

Prosecutors said the men traveled from their port of arrival, Karachi, to the cities of Hyderabad and Lahore, where they met with members of the banned militant organizations Jaish-i-Muhammad and Jamaat-ud-Dawa. The organizations accepted small donations from the men -- from $6 to $12, according to receipts presented as evidence -- but rejected the five as potential fighters, prosecutors and police said.

Militant groups in Pakistan have traditionally been wary of accepting Americans into their fold, fearing the possibility that they could be spies.

Prosecutors also presented printouts of 12 e-mails that they said the men had exchanged with Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a wanted Pakistani militant accused of inviting the group to Pakistan.

Jihadist literature belonging to the men, together with maps of an air force base and a nuclear plant in western Punjab province that the men acknowledged wanting to attack, indicated the group's intent to wage terrorism, prosecutors said.

Defense attorneys said several inconsistencies indicated that police had fabricated the e-mails, maps and confessions. Lawyer Hassan Katchela said that police told news media about the existence of the maps and e-mails several days before the dates on which prosecutors said they were seized and that the wording of all five men's statements -- allegedly dictated -- was identical.

"The evidence that we produced in the court was not even read," Katchela said.

'Shocked' by verdicts

The men grew up in the Alexandria area and worshiped at the same small mosque in Fairfax. They said during the trial that they had traveled secretly to Pakistan for the wedding of one of the five and in hopes of helping the orphaned and homeless in neighboring Afghanistan. When they were arrested in December, after their families reported them missing around Thanksgiving, they ranged in age from 18 to 24.

Katchela said the men were "shocked" when the verdicts were announced in court. In addition to the prison sentences, they were each fined about $820.

"They remained silent," Katchela said, adding that he expected to meet with the men Friday and discuss an appeal, which he plans to submit to a higher court, in Lahore, within a week.

"We feel they'll have a better chance at a fair trial in Lahore, where a local court doesn't have to rule that its own local investigators fabricated evidence," said Ginsberg, the Alexandria lawyer.

Deputy prosecutor Rana Bakhtiar told reporters outside the Sargodha jail that the government will also appeal, probably seeking 20-year prison terms.

Families worried

As news of the convictions filtered out Thursday morning, Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, spoke by phone with the men's parents. "They are in a state of shock," Awad said.

In addition to the court proceedings being conducted in secret, Awad said, another major concern of the families is that the men alleged in court documents that their admissions about terrorist activities had been made under torture.

Reached by phone Thursday, Zamzam's mother, Amal Khalifa, weeping openly, said only: "I need help to talk to my son on the phone. I need to talk to him."

Chaudhry's father, Khalid Farooq Chaudhry, who was in Sargodha for the trial, said he was "disappointed" by the verdict.

"I don't know where is justice," the elder Chaudhry said.

Hussain is a special correspondent. Schulte reported from Washington. Staff writer Jerry Markon in Washington and correspondent Karin Brulliard in Kabul contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company