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2004-06-16

From Paintball Practice to Prison: A Look At One of The Most Controversial Terrorism Cases in the Country

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In Virginia, a judge sentenced three men to prison Tuesday, including one to life and another to 85 years, on terrorism charges connected to a game of paintball. But the sentence is coming under intense criticism — from the judge herself who described the sentence as "appalling" and "Draconian." We talk to one of the defendant’s attorneys who says the ruling marks "the greatest miscarriage of justice of any case" he has ever seen. [Includes transcript]

In Virginia, three Muslim men were sentenced to up to life in prison after the government accused the men of training for holy war abroad by playing paintball games in the Virginia woods. One man was sentenced to life. Another to 85 years and the third got eight years. The men were accused of being connected to the Pakistani group Lashkar-i-Taiba which is trying to drive India from the disputed region of Kashmir.

In an unusual development, the judge in the case, U.S. District Court Judge Lonnie Brinkema, called the lengthy sentences "appalling" and "draconian" but said she had no choice under federal law. She said "We have murderers who get far less time. I’ve sent Al Qaeda members planning attacks on these shores to less time. This is sticking in my craw. Law and justice at times need to be in tune."

One of the defendant’s attorneys called the sentence "the greatest miscarriage of justice of any case" he has been involved in 34 years of practice.

  • John Zwerling, attorney based in Alexandria Virginia. He represented Seifullah Chapman in the Virginia Paintball case. His client was sentenced on Tuesday to 85 years in jail.
  • David Cole, Washington-based constitutional attorney, professor at Georgetown Law School and author of the book "Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and Constitutional Freedom in the War on Terrorism."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me read you something from today’s Washington Post. "The federal judge imposed a life prison sentence yesterday on one member of the alleged Virginia jihad network, an 85-year term on another. In an unusual criticism of her own ruling, the judge said she found it appalling, but had no choice under strict sentencing guidelines. U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said the 85-year sentence she handed down to the defendant, who is 31 years old, was, "Sticking in my craw." He and two other co-defendants were convicted by Brinkema in March of conspiring to aid a Muslim group fighting India that the government has deemed a terrorist organization. The judge told an Alexandria courtroom packed with supporters of the three men, "What Mr. Chapman has been found guilty of is a serious crime, but there are murderers who have served far less time." She said, "I have sentenced al-Qaeda members planning attacks on these shores to far less time." In sentencing him to prison and another to 97 months, Brinkema closed an unusual case in which 11 Muslim men were originally charged with taking part in paramilitary training, including playing paintball in the Virginia countryside to prepare for Holy War abroad. Six defendants pleaded guilty. Only the three went to trial. Two others were acquitted. We go now to John Zwerling, an attorney based in Alexandria, Virginia. He represents one of the defendants in the Virginia paintball case. His client, again, sentenced to 85 years in jail. We’re talking to him on his cell phone in his car. Welcome to Democracy Now!

JOHN ZWERLING: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what happened here?

JOHN ZWERLING: Well, what point? I mean, this case was conceived in ignorance and a misunderstanding of what Islam is all about. And under a rush to prosecute Muslims, I really believe that. I didn’t believe that when I first got into the case, but I came to believe that. They misused the term jihad throughout the entire trial. You’re even now referring to it as the Virginia Jihad Trial because that’s the name that the government gave it so it would have a flashy ring in the press. And jihad, as you probably know and many of your listeners probably know, means a struggle for good or struggle for God and it is everything from depriving yourself from certain pleasures in service of God, to trying to live a good life, to improving violent struggle through self-defense. But always within the laws of the land that you live in. This is my understanding from having spent about a year in this case and according to a lot of people. And, you know, when a group of young men started to play paintball, some of them were doing it in what they said were preparation for jihad. But they didn’t mean that by going abroad and killing people, they meant preparing themselves to be able to respond to whatever the future might hold, whether it was defending the family from attacks, as many Muslims were required to do after 9/11, including my client, who’s home was defaced to people banging on doors, to just being prepared. And he got it all twisted around. It was very sad. Very sad to see.

AMY GOODMAN: I would like to ask you about the judge’s comments. That’s pretty astounding that she first sentenced your client to 85 years in prison and then said that she found it appalling that she did that, that the sentence is sticking in her craw, but that she has no choice. Explain.

JOHN ZWERLING: All right. Under the federal system, there are mandatory minimum sentences that are applied to certain offenses. There are mandatory guidelines that judges have to live with because Congress has refused to allow judges to use common sense and judicial discretion and fashion appropriate sentences. And they often times result in the law not allowing justice to appear in the courtrooms, especially for them to go to trial. And this is not unique to this case. There are a lot of federal judges who have resigned their positions over the drug laws where there are these horrendous minimum mandatory penalties for first offenders, where crack cocaine is treated 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine, even though the government knows that crack cocaine is primarily a prosecution of minorities and powder cocaine less so. And so it has that discriminatory effect. For example, possession of five grams of cocaine carries a five-year minimum mandatory penalty, a five-year powder cocaine you can get probation. It’s not unique. And in this case, the using and possessing of a firearm to go hunting and also becoming more proficient, which you would expect to go target shooting, became a 30-year offense minimum.

AMY GOODMAN: John, we’re also joined by Constitutional Attorney David Cole. We’re actually having him on to talk about a different case. This case, the young man who was acquitted who ran websites. But before we go to break, David Cole, I wanted to get your comment on this case and the judge’s own comments after she sentenced his client to 85 years in prison, saying she found what she was doing appalling.

DAVID COLE: Well, I think it is appalling and I think it is a reflection of how crazy we have gotten in this war on terrorism. There is a case right now pending on appeal to the Fourth Circuit in Virginia which involved a guy who was convicted of smuggling cigarettes across state lines and then donating $3,000 of the proceeds to Hezbollah. No proof that he was sending it for any sort of illegal purpose. His co-conspirators got five-year sentences. But because he was convicted of also having made a donation to Hezbollah in Lebanon, he got a 155-year sentence. And the sentences are just completely out of whack with any sort of common sense or with any sort of moral culpability.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to break. And then we’re going to talk about another case. I want to thank John Zwerling. His client was just sentenced to 85 years in jail with the judge objecting to her own sentence that she handed down to this man. Also, we’re speaking to David Cole, so stay with us.

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