ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Shorn of his long hair and beard, John Walker Lindh quietly faced his government’s charges Thursday that he conspired to kill fellow Americans in Afghanistan.
“Yes, I do, thank you,” he answered when asked at his first court appearance if he grasped the accusations that he conspired to kill Americans abroad and aided terrorist groups.
His lawyers, in a signal of the defense they will pursue, strongly criticized the FBI’s questioning of the 20-year-old shortly after his capture in Afghanistan.
Lindh “asked for a lawyer, repeatedly asked for a lawyer,” from Dec. 2 on, his lead attorney, James Brosnahan, said outside the courthouse.
The government countered that Lindh had made his own decision to waive his right to an attorney before that questioning — and to join the Taliban and support Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist organization.
“John Walker chose to join terrorists who wanted to kill Americans, and he chose to waive his right to an attorney, both orally and in writing, before he was questioned by the FBI,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said at a news conference.
“Mr. Walker will be held responsible in the courtroom for his choices,” the attorney general said.
With his parents watching from the second row in a federal courtroom, Lindh stood erect facing the judge when he was addressed. He wore a green jumpsuit with the word “prisoner” on the back, and spoke three times.
First he said he understood the charges. Then U.S. Magistrate Judge W. Curtis Sewell asked whether he understood the possible penalties, including life in prison.
“Yes I do, sir,” Lindh said in a quiet voice.
He responded, “No sir, I don’t have any questions,” when told he would be kept in custody for now but would have another hearing Feb. 6.
At that time, the judge will determine whether Lindh will remain in custody without bail.
At the White House, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said of the highly publicized case: “The president has faith in our impartial system of justice. ... The president looks forward to justice being done in the court.”
Outside the courthouse, Lindh’s parents — who met with their son for the first time in two years before the hearing Thursday — said he never intended to harm Americans.
“John loves America. We love America. John did not do anything against America. ... John is innocent of these charges,” said Frank Lindh.
Lindh’s mother, Marilyn Walker, fought tears as she said: “It’s been two years since I last saw my son. It was wonderful to see him this morning. My love for him is unconditional and absolute.”
Brosnahan, who met with Lindh before and after the hearing, said that despite “the government’s effort to demonize him, he’s a nice young man.”
The government’s criminal complaint paints another picture. While at an al-Qaida training camp in June, Lindh “learned from one of his instructors that Osama bin Laden had sent people to the United States to carry out several suicide operations,” according to an FBI affidavit.
The criminal complaint accuses Lindh of:
—Conspiring to kill Americans outside the United States.
—Providing material support and resources to a terrorist organization, Harakat ul-Mujahideen, in Kashmir.
—Providing material support and resources to bin Laden’s al-Qaida.
—Contributing goods and services to the Taliban and to people whose property and interests are legally blocked in the war against terrorism.
Lindh’s initial appearance of nearly 15 minutes was not held to argue legal issues. But Brosnahan told reporters outside the courthouse that the FBI affidavit should not be admissible, because Lindh made statements without a lawyer present. At the time, Lindh was recovering from a gunshot wound in his leg.
The government countered that Lindh signed a statement waiving his right to an attorney before the FBI interviewed him Dec. 9 and 10.
Heavy security surrounded Lindh’s arrival at the courthouse, just a few miles from the Pentagon, which was extensively damaged in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Snipers stood on the roof and armed officers patrolled outside the building, where the government also is prosecuting Zacarias Moussaoui — the only person charged with helping the Sept. 11 attackers.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Kelley said the government was insisting Lindh remain in custody because of a risk that he would try to flee and because of potential danger to the community. Sewell granted the request.
Lindh was captured in November near the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif after an uprising by Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners there. An American CIA officer, Johnny “Mike” Spann, was killed during the uprising.
Lindh left this country two years ago to study Arabic and Islam in Yemen, and then apparently went to Pakistan and from there to Afghanistan.
When he learned of the Sept. 11 attacks on the radio, Lindh told the FBI according to an affidavit, it was his understanding “that bin Laden had ordered the attacks and that additional attacks would follow.”
Lindh, a Californian who converted to Islam at age 16, said he trained for seven weeks in an al-Qaida camp where bin Laden visited three to five times, giving lectures “on the local situation, political issues, old Afghan/Soviet battles, etc.,” the affidavit says.