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Leaving It All Behind
Comments () | Published October 27, 2010
Pakistan’s legal system, by American standards, is baffling. Corruption runs rampant, terrorism suspects are rarely kept in custody until their trial date, and those who actually make it to trial wait months, if not years, for the proceedings. Most militants fall outside Pakistan’s judicial system and are instead handed over to the military or the intelligence service, which often lets them go.

Militants linked to organizations with ties to the government, such as L-e-T, are known to slip away or benefit from the government’s blind eye. Terror convictions in Pakistan are not only rare but frequently overturned on appeal.

From the start, the case of the “DC Five,” as the young men are known in Pakistan, was different: It moved at an unusually quick pace and received international attention.

The accused also drew attention to their time in captivity. On their way to a February court hearing, they passed a note written on toilet paper from the back window of a van to gathered journalists. They alleged that they each had been tortured by the Pakistani police and the FBI, a claim repeated in letters home, which were passed to their parents by the State Department.

“We were taken to a place where I still don’t know where it was (we were blindfolded) and there were like 30 police and [intelligence] agency people who beat and tortured us,” Zamzam wrote to his parents. “We were not given food or water for I counted to be at least 36 hours and they wouldn’t let me sleep. . . . They told us not to say anything to anyone about what happened. . . . They even threatened to electrocute us the day before court so we don’t tell the judge but we spoke out and we did the toilet paper note so the world could know.”

It is no more uncommon for prisoners of the Pakistani legal system to cry “torture” as a swift and sympathetic defense than it is for Pakistani police to actually raise a hand against them. But as Americans benefiting from frequent visits from the US consulate and close media coverage, the men received better food and better treatment than their fellow inmates.

After word got back to the United States that the five had been picked up by Pakistani authorities, Facebook groups sprang up in their defense. Family and friends posted supportive messages; many recounted their favorite memories of boys who spent their days playing soccer, eating at Kabob Palace and McDonald’s, watching movies, and working out at the gym.

“In his presence, I never felt like I didn’t have an older brother,” one girl wrote.

“My mom misses you,” wrote another.

On the Facebook wall of the group Support Waqar Khan, a note reads: “i am the youngest brother of waqar khan. we were the closest of friends. . . .i miss him a lot.”

Talha Chaudhry, younger brother of Umar Farooq Chaudhry, posted updates to the 400 members of the Facebook group Free Washington Five. “They are being given good food and recreational activities, but a jail cell is no place for a human being to sleep at night,” he wrote one evening. “All is going well for the 5 brothers and inshAllah [God willing] we are working on finding 5 nice sisters for them.”

A month after that update, Pakistan made news by blocking access to a series of Web sites including YouTube and Facebook. If it hadn’t already become apparent, Pakistan was officially de-friending the West.

On March 17, the young men were officially charged with five counts in antiterror court in Pakistan. Authorities had previously let Khalid Farooq free. The prosecution alleged that the five men from Northern Virginia planned to attack an air base and the Chashma Barrage, a complex located near nuclear-power facilities in Punjab province. The alleged targets were near the Sargodha house where the five were arrested.

The trial began on March 31 in a closed court in a high-security prison in Sargodha and was off-limits to journalists and outside observers. There was a single judge and no jury. The five pleaded not guilty.

The prosecution presented testimony by 19 witnesses, who were cross-examined by the defense. They also presented printouts of e-mails the men sent to Pakistan, which the defense claimed had been fabricated, as well as their cell-phone records and maps. The prosecution also submitted receipts for evidence of financial support to a terrorist organization, which amounted to 6 and 12 US dollars.

A representative from the US Embassy in Islamabad was present for every phase of the trial, but there’s little evidence that the United States interfered with or influenced the proceedings, according to Pakistani media and American reporters in Sargodha for the trial.

“The United States government respects Pakistan’s right to conduct its own judicial process,” says a State Department spokesman. “We will continue to provide consular assistance to these US citizens.” The FBI refused to comment on the case.

When US citizens are arrested abroad, the consulate is limited in what it can do. The Privacy Act stipulates that the State Department can’t share information about the individuals, so details of the proceedings are gathered from Pakistani media and US correspondents stationed in Sargodha for the trial. Because the five young men chose not to waive their privacy rights, the US Embassy couldn’t speak on their behalf.

On May 15, the five young men submitted handwritten statements to the judge, which all five read nearly word for word. They wrote that the idea for the journey had been hatched in 2008, after the group watched the movie The Kite Runner at Chaudhry’s house in Alexandria. They said they were inspired to do charity work in Afghanistan. Zamzam wrote that when Chaudhry announced in the summer of 2009 that his parents had arranged a marriage for him in Pakistan, “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.”

Aman Hassan Yemer, at 19 the youngest in the group and only a year removed from West Potomac High School, wrote: “It doesn’t make any sense that I would leave my family, friends, education and comfortable, happy life to live in a small cave.”

Minni, whose mother always called him by the nickname Hamada, wrote, “My only wish is to be back home and join my mom. She always taught me to be kind to the people and be peaceful. I never wanted to disobey my parents. I miss them and I wish to return home as soon as possible.” He said he and his friends had left secretly because they were sure their parents would never give permission. The five never mentioned why they had shown up on the doorstep of multiple homes operated by different known terrorist organizations.

On the morning of June 24, police vehicles in Pakistan swarmed the area surrounding the antiterrorism court in expectation of a verdict on the DC Five. The lone judge handed down a sentence: ten years of hard labor in prison for conspiring to carry out terrorist attacks.

Prosecutors claimed that money had changed hands when the group met representatives from Jaish-e-Mohammed in Hyderabad, so each man received an additional five-year sentence for financing a militant organization. The sentences were to be served concurrently. They were also each fined 70,000 Pakistani rupees, the equivalent of $823, for conspiring against the state.

No one made a sound as the verdict was read. The defendants filed out of the courtroom silently.

Kahlid Farooq—Umar’s father and the man originally arrested with the group—told reporters that he was a lawyer by profession and that the evidence presented in court was fabricated. He and the defense said the families would challenge the verdict in Lahore High Court. The deputy prosecutor general of Punjab province said prosecutors had sought the maximum penalty of 25 years in jail. The prosecution said it would appeal to have the sentence increased.

A spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy confirmed that the defendants have filed their appeals against Lahore High Court and that no date has been set.

US officials never filed an extradition request for the five to stand trial here, and there’s no public indictment for them in the Eastern District of Virginia, where they would presumably be tried on terrorism charges. This doesn’t rule out the possibility that a sealed grand-jury indictment—a common tool in terrorism cases—awaits the men on their release from jail in Pakistan.

Some experts suggest that by not advocating on their behalf, US officials are warning other would-be radicals that they’ll face foreign justice on their own. “Does the US want to send the message that if you’re young and foolish enough to wage jihad, we’re not going to bail you out?” Georgetown’s Bruce Hoffman says. “You have to be pretty zealously committed to put yourself in the same position, is the message that emerges from their odyssey.”

After years of constant pressure from the United States to crack down on militancy, Pakistan likely saw an opportunity in the case of the five young men. What better way to show a serious commitment to eradicating terror and get the United States’ attention than to arrest five Americans—especially five young men who could have acquired training and easily slipped back into America unnoticed?

Abu Maryam, the men’s youth-group leader and mentor for the past three years, is haunted by what he missed seeing: “The last time I saw Waqar, he looked at me and said, ‘Do you need anything else, brother?’ ‘No, Waqar, no,’ I said. ‘I’m good.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Okay.’ Then he turned around and left. But I wondered why he stared at me for a couple of seconds. No goodbye, no ‘It’s been a pleasure,’ no ‘I’ll see you in a couple of years.’ He just left. In hindsight, you can see things like this.”

Abu Maryam still can’t come to terms with the men’s abrupt disappearance or their intentions. But he’s skeptical of the charges against them: “What crime did they commit other than [voicing] the opinion that Muslims need to be defended? What does that mean? Were they going to feed certain groups of people or deliver medical supplies or raise funds? What type of defending? Why [did prosecutors] go to the extreme—that they were going to get weapons to kill people?”

Abu Maryam says he counseled the men repeatedly not to take up a violent struggle. He says he used to talk all the time about the benefits of being an American and contributing to society. “America may not be a Muslim country,” he told them, “but it’s the best we’ve got!”

“The video was not a farewell statement,” he says of the jihadi-like video that Zamzam left on the thumb drive before heading to Pakistan. “It was basically a speech.”

Yet doubts linger. Why were the five really in Pakistan? What might have happened had authorities not arrested them? If they were actually seeking training, might they have returned here, like Shahzad, to launch an attack in the United States? After all, following the Times Square bombing attempt, a similar “farewell” video of Shahzad surfaced online.

In the end, for the families and friends that the Northern Virginia Five left behind, there’s the grim solace that if their children were terrorists, at least someone stopped them. “The good thing,” says Abu Maryam, “is that they were apprehended before any crimes were committed. Nobody’s dead. The kids are alive.”

This article initially appeared in the November issue of The Washingtonian. 

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