His son is serving time in a Mojave Desert federal prison. But Frank Lindh, the ever-loyal father of the young Marin County native the tabloids dubbed “the American Taliban” has not given up trying to get John Walker Lindh out of jail.
Last month, defense attorneys petitioned President Bush for commutation of the 20-year, no-parole term the son, a devout Muslim convert, received from a U.S. district judge in Virginia in 2002. The request is pending.
On Thursday at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, Frank Lindh, a Northern California utility attorney, launched what he described as a long-shot campaign to win public support for the reduction in his son’s sentence, which he blamed on public hysteria and media sensationalism that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“In simple terms,” said Lindh, who several times fought off tears, “this is the story of a decent and honorable young man who became involved in a spiritual quest and became the focus of the grief and anger of an entire nation over an event in which he had no part.”
He said his son, now 24, was issued an AK-47 assault rifle and two hand grenades by Taliban commanders, but never fired his weapon in combat. John Lindh, the father said, met Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden on two occasions in Afghanistan but came away unimpressed.
But the father also accepted some of the blame for his son’s predicament. He regretted approving John Lindh’s travel to Pakistan in early 2001, ostensibly to memorize the Koran.
After telling his family he was going to the mountains to escape Pakistan’s intense heat, the younger Lindh ended up joining the Afghan Taliban army seven months before Sept. 11, training in an Al Qaeda-funded camp. He also served with the Taliban in battling the rival Northern Alliance in northeast Afghanistan.
Weeks after the October 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, John Lindh was a captive of the Northern Alliance at the prison fortress of Qala-i-Jangi, outside Mazar-i-Sharif, where he was questioned by American CIA agent Johnny “Mike” Spann. A prison uprising that soon followed left Spann dead and Lindh with a wounded leg.
Frank Lindh said the combination of the terrorist attacks, the U.S.-Northern Alliance campaign against the Taliban and the death of the CIA agent created a climate in which his son became the personification of what the public feared and reviled.
“He was extremely unpopular in the United States and probably still is,” Frank Lindh said in an hourlong presentation that featured slides of his son as an infant and as a teenage student of Islam.
Lindh said his son was mistreated while in the custody of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He showed a photograph of his son bound, blindfolded and naked on a wooden plank. He said other Americans serving with the Taliban, most notably Yaser Hamdi, who was rounded up with John Lindh and who had dual U.S. and Saudi citizenship, were treated more leniently. Hamdi was allowed to return to Saudi Arabia on the condition that he give up his U.S. citizenship.
John Lindh got the 20-year sentence in a plea deal in which the government agreed to drop terrorism charges in exchange for his guilty plea on charges of violating U.S. sanctions against Afghanistan by supplying services to the Taliban and carrying explosives for them.
Winning public support for a reduction in the negotiated sentence will be difficult, Frank Lindh admitted. He plans to appear in other forums and at law schools around the country to make his case.
“I think we all have to realize that the odds are against it,” Lindh said. “It is difficult to envision a situation where all those hotheads in Washington can turn around and recognize the kid got a raw deal and should be released.”
Attorney James Brosnahan said the next step will challenging the federal rules that ban John Lindh from speaking with reporters.
“Frank spoke today as only a father can speak about a son,” Brosnahan said. “But I’ve always thought that an interview with John would be just as interesting.”
John Lindh is held at the medium-security federal prison in Victorville, where he receives regular visits from his family.