ALEXANDRIA, Va., July 15 (UPI) -- John Walker Lindh will probably serve 20 years in federal prison for aiding the Taliban under the terms of a plea arrangement reached with prosecutors early Monday morning. The agreement surprised even the judge, who did not receive a copy of the plea agreement until the hearing began.
Walker Lindh, 21, was captured in Afghanistan by Northern Alliance soldiers and turned over to the U.S. military before he was charged with nine felony counts for his role as a soldier with the Taliban. Three of those charges -- including conspiracy to murder Americans and terrorists -- carry a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Speaking before Judge T.S. Ellis, Walker Lindh admitted to having trained at two al Qaida-backed terrorist camps and traveling to Afghanistan to fight against the Northern Alliance troops in that country's civil war. He also pleaded guilty to a new charge -- carrying explosives while in the commission of a felony -- as part of the agreement. Each of the two charges carries a maximum prison term of 10 years. Ellis is expected to sentence Walker Lindh at an Oct. 4 hearing and will have final say on the duration of his time in jail.
"I provided my services as a soldier to the Taliban last year from about August to December," he told Ellis, while family members looked on from the gallery. "In the course of doing so I carried a rifle and two grenades. I did so knowingly and willingly knowing that it was illegal."
As part of the plea deal, Walker Lindh dropped claims that he had been tortured and mistreated by U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and aboard two military ships during December and January. Monday's hearing was originally intended to be the start of a weeklong examination of whether statements he made to military personnel and FBI agents -- as well as statements made before a CNN camera -- should be admitted in a trial.
Walker Lindh allegedly told investigators that he had met with al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and had been offered a position as a terrorist with the militant organization. He also apparently admitted being told by al Qaida members that 20 teams of terrorists had been sent to attack the United States and Israel.
He repeatedly denied, however, any involvement in the death of CIA Agent Johnny "Mike" Spann, who was killed by Walker Lindh's fellow prisoners during a prison riot outside the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. After the riot, a wounded Walker Lindh was discovered by a military medic and a CNN reporter and transferred from Northern Alliance custody to the U.S. military.
Much of the government's claim that Walker Lindh conspired to kill Americans revolved around his presence when Spann was killed. But his lawyer insisted that Walker Lindh had never actually participated in any fighting, even when serving as a soldier.
"He never killed anyone and never shot his gun," James Brosnahan told reporters after the hearing. "My client served as a foot soldier for the Taliban. He did it because of his religious beliefs, and he did what he thought was right as a Muslim. I would point out that all of the terrorism charges have been dismissed."
When asked how his client was responding to a guilty plea that would probably keep him in jail until the age of 40, Brosnahan admitted to giving him some historic perspective.
"I told him that (former South African President) Nelson Mandela spent 25 years in prison before being vindicated," he said.
According to Paul McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, the deal allows the government to collect as much information as possible from Walker Lindh. He will be required to cooperate with investigators, take repeated polygraph examinations, and appear as a witness in any trial at which he might be needed.
He also agreed not to profit from his story in any manner and was told that any future association with a terrorist group or act of terrorism would get him treated as an enemy combatant.
The plea -- which came after midnight, according to lawyers involved in the talks -- surprised the packed courtroom, which had been prepared for secret testimony by government and military witnesses. A black curtain was in place to hide the identity of witnesses, but it would not be needed as Brosnahan shocked the courtroom with the words, "There has been a change in plea."