US-born Taliban fighter wins prison prayer lawsuit

Associated Press
FILE - This  undated file photo obtained from a religious school where he studied for five months in Bannu, near Islamabad, Pakistan shows American-born Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh. A U.S. judge on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013 ruled that the convicted Taliban fighter should be allowed to pray daily in a group with other Muslim inmates at their high-security prison in Indiana. The judge ruled that the prison was violating Lindh's and other Muslim inmates' religious freedom by banning them from engaging in daily ritual prayer. (AP Photo/File)
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FILE - This undated file photo obtained from a religious school where he studied for five months in Bannu, …

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — An American convicted of fighting alongside the Taliban must be allowed to pray daily in a group with other Muslim inmates at his high-security prison in Indiana, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Barring John Walker Lindh and his fellow Muslims from engaging in daily group ritual prayer violates a 1993 law that bans the government from curtailing religious speech without showing a compelling interest, U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled.

The judge blocked the prison from enforcing its ban on daily group prayer, but she noted that her ruling does not prohibit the prison from taking less restrictive security measures.

U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett, whose office represented the prison, said Friday that prosecutors were considering their next step, including a possible appeal.

"This case deals with critically important issues that have significance both inside and outside the walls of our federal prison facilities," Hogsett said. "Our concern continues to be the safety and security of both our federal prison system and the United States of America."

Ken Falk, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which represented Lindh, noted Friday that witnesses testified prisoners were allowed for many years to pray daily outside their cells, "and it never caused any problem."

"I think the court correctly noted that security is a primary concern, but that it's not sufficient for the government to claim a security concern without having evidence of it," Falk said.

Group prayers had been allowed once a week and on high holy days such as Ramadan or Christmas in the prison unit where Lindh was housed, the Communications Management Unit in Terre Haute, Ind. But at other times, inmates had to pray alone in their cells.

Lindh said that didn't meet the Quran's requirements, and that the Hanbali school of Islam to which he adheres requires him to pray daily with other Muslims.

But prison officials said the same restrictions applied to all inmates, and that meeting Lindh's demands would be dangerous, unaffordable and unfair. Government witnesses testified that Muslims, who make up the majority of inmates in the unit, have operated like a gang under the guise of religious activity.

During trial, the ACLU noted that games and some other group activities were not restricted.

Lindh is serving a 20-year sentence for aiding the Taliban during the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. He was captured by U.S. troops that year, and in 2002 pleaded guilty to supplying services and carrying explosives for the now-defunct Taliban government. He is eligible for release in 2019.

Raised Catholic, the California native was 12 when he saw the movie "Malcolm X" and became interested in Islam. He converted at age 16. Walker told Newsweek after his capture that he had entered Afghanistan to help the Taliban build a "pure Islamic state."

Lindh joined the prayer lawsuit in 2010, three years after being sent to the Indiana prison. The suit was originally filed in 2009 by two Muslim inmates in the unit, but it got far more attention when Lindh joined the case. The other plaintiffs later dropped out as they were released or transferred from the prison.

"I think he was ready to just abide by the outcome, but I think in John's mind he felt he had an obligation to stand up for the right to pray," Lindh's father, Frank Lindh, during a phone interview from his office in San Francisco.

"We're proud to live in a country where even someone in John's position, an inmate in a prison, could get heard in court on the right to pray," he said. "Today I feel proud to be an American."

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Associated Press writer Ken Kusmer contributed to this report.

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