WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday charged American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh with conspiracy to kill Americans overseas. He will be tried in a civilian court and could face life in prison.
"The United States does not casually or capriciously charge one of its own citizens with providing support to terrorists," Attorney General John Ashcroft said.
"We are compelled to do so today by the inescapable fact of September the 11th -- a day that reminded us in no uncertain terms that we have enemies in the world and that these enemies seek to destroy us."
Walker, 20, who prefers to be known by his mother's family name, was captured in Afghanistan on Dec. 1, 2001 as the ruling Taliban's hold on the country collapsed under intense U.S. bombing and advances on the ground by opposition forces.
Tuesday's charges also included counts of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and engaging in prohibited transactions with the Taliban. Those carry lesser penalties of up to 15 years in prison.
Ashcroft said the U.S. military, which has been holding Walker, would turn him over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation to face trial in the U.S.
"The U.S. military stands prepared to turn over Mr. Walker as soon as they (the Justice Department) are ready to accept him," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Tuesday. "The details of the transfer are still being worked out."
Walker, who is currently being held on the USS Bataan, has been in custody on a U.S. Marine ship in the Arabian Sea since he was apprehended at the al Qaida and Taliban prisoner uprising at Mazar-i-Sharif in November.
On Tuesday's, Lindh's separated parents and George C. Harris, one of their San Francisco-based attorneys, accused the government of denying mail from his parents and refusing to let him see a lawyer during 45 days of interrogation.
"We now hope that we will see our son soon and give him the love and support he needs," his family said in a statement distributed by a public relations firm.
"We are grateful to live in a nation that presumes innocence and withholds judgment until all of the facts are presented, and we pray for just a resolution of this case."
The criminal complaint states that Walker waived his rights to an attorney both verbally and in writing. In his interviews with investigators, Walker allegedly admitted to attending a paramilitary training camp in May 2001 run by Harakat ul-Mujahedin to fight in Kashmir, the disputed border area between Pakistan and India.
Then in June, Walker traveled to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban. There he underwent a seven-week terrorist al Qaida training program -- and allegedly learned from one of his instructors that terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden had sent people to the United States to carry out several suicide operations.
"Our complaint, based on Walker's own words, is very clear: Terrorists did not compel John Walker Lindh to join them; John Walker Lindh chose terrorists," Ashcroft said.
At one point, the complaint states, Walker and four other trainees met with bin Laden, who thanked him for taking part in jihad. After his training was completed, he was given a choice to fight with the Harkat ul-Mujahedin in Kashmir or join the Taliban to fight in Afghanistan. Walker chose to join the Taliban.
Walker was not charged with treason, which can carry the death penalty. Ashcroft noted that the U.S. Constitution says treason can be proven only by a confession in open court or by the testimony of at least two witnesses to each alleged overt act. But Ashcroft said it was possible that other charges against Walker could be filed later.
Harris, one of Walker's attorneys, said: "Despite repeated attempts by his family and his counsel to see him, John ahs not bee given access to a lawyer. To the best of our knowledge, he has not even been informed that his parents have retained lawyers who are working on his behalf."
"We are going to do everything in our power to make sure that John has a fair trial," said Harris, a lawyer with the San Francisco-based firm Morrison & Foerster LLP.
Speculation had swirled around Walker, whose image on television became a familiar one, showing him appearing thin, with long, dark straggly hair and a dirt-covered face.
Legal experts said Walker could become a government witness against al Qaida, the Islamic extremist group led by bin Laden that Washington blames for the terrorist attacks against Washington and New York on Sept. 11. Some 3,000 people died in those attacks.
Ashcroft declined to discuss his consultations with President Bush on Walker's fate. He said Walker would not be brought before a military tribunal established by the U.S. Department of Defense on Bush's order to try foreign terrorist suspects. Bush's military order banned U.S. citizens from facing the special court.
Reaction to the news that Walker had been charged came swiftly from Capitol Hill. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he knew Ashcroft faced a difficult and complex decision.
"Like every American I was appalled that someone from our country would join and fight with an organization as repulsive and repressive as the Taliban, which abetted terrorism and murder and which abused the fundamental human rights of the Afghan people, especially its women," said Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
"I hope that Mr. Walker will fully cooperate with the FBI as this case goes forward."
(With reporting by Pamela Hess, UPI Pentagon Correspondent.)
(Photos accompanying this story are numbered WAP2002011510 through WAP2002011513.)