INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh and other Muslims housed at a special federal prison unit in Indiana have used the veil of religion to show defiance toward their captors and assert power over other inmates, prison officials testified Wednesday.
Lindh is suing the government to overturn a policy preventing him and the other Muslim detainees he's housed with from performing their five daily prayers as a group. He once delivered an incendiary sermon in Arabic at the Terre Haute prison's Communication Management Unit despite a requirement that inmates speak English except for ritual prayers, security official Tim Coleman testified during the third day of the trial over Lindh's lawsuit.
Lindh, who is serving a 20-year sentence for aiding the Taliban during the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, says group prayer is required under the school of Islam to which he adheres, and that the prison policy violates a 1993 law barring the government from curtailing religious speech without showing a compelling interest.
Coleman said Lindh has a history of acting defiantly toward prison officials.
"He's not recognizing our authority and is trying to put religion over our authority," Coleman said.
However, under cross-examination by legal director Ken Falk of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, Coleman acknowledged that some of the incidents involving Lindh resulted from an interrupted visit with his mother, whom he hadn't seen in months, and his religious practices. He said the most serious punishment Lindh received was 30 days without email.
Coleman said that Muslims, who form the majority of the inmates in the 55-cell unit, have been involved in group assaults and fights with non-Muslim inmates. He said about a dozen Muslim inmates surrounded him one time when he confronted one of their comrades about his behavior during the authorized weekly prayer, and non-Muslim inmates said they felt pressured into signing a petition in favor of permitting daily group prayers.
Coleman acknowledged that non-Muslim inmates had broken many of the same regulations the Muslims had, such as fighting and failing to cooperate with daily head counts.
Allowing only Muslims to perform their daily rituals in a group would foster resentment among prisoners of other faiths, which could trigger violence and give those who profess Islam a dangerous sense of power, said Harvey Church, the associate warden who oversees the secretive, high-security unit.
"When someone is given more opportunities than others, then that is a significant sign of power," Church said. And when inmates think they have power, they start acting out against other inmates and prison staff, he added.
Currently, inmates are allowed only one weekly group service regardless of their religion, the prison officials said.
Under questioning by Falk, Church admitted he had never observed a Muslim group prayer, didn't know where Mecca was, and didn't understand Islamic rituals.
But, Church said, "The daily prayers could be conducted in their own cells. I don't see how that would be a hindrance. They could still pray."
Lindh, 31, is one of 24 Muslims among the 43 inmates in his unit. Prisoners there are under open and covert audio and video surveillance, and all of their phone calls are monitored except for talks with their attorneys. Prisoners aren't allowed to touch family members during tightly controlled visits. Without such strong security, the government claims, inmates would be able to conspire with outsiders to commit terrorist or criminal acts.
According to court documents, additional group prayers are permitted for Muslims during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The lawsuit was originally filed in 2009 by two Muslim inmates in the unit. Lindh joined the lawsuit in 2010, and the case has drawn far more attention since then. The other plaintiffs have dropped out as they were released from prison or transferred to other units.
In 2001, Lindh was captured in Afghanistan by U.S. troops and accused of fighting for the Taliban. Raised Catholic, the California native was 12 when he saw the movie "Malcolm X" and became interested in Islam. He converted to Islam at age 16. Walker told Newsweek after his capture that he had entered Afghanistan to help the Taliban build a "pure Islamic state."
In 2002, Lindh pleaded guilty to supplying services to the now-defunct Taliban government and carrying explosives for them. He had been charged with conspiring to kill Americans and support terrorists, but those charges were dropped in a plea agreement. He was transferred to the Terre Haute prison in 2007. He is eligible for release in 2019.