Free our Talib

The president’s power to grant clemency -- in the form of either a pardon or a commutation -- is much maligned and occasionally abused, as was the case when President Bush used it to keep his colleague, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, from facing even a day in prison for lying and obstructing justice. But the power has its appropriate uses as well, and the case of John Walker Lindh calls out for it.

Known unfortunately as “the American Taliban,” Lindh became a symbol for fanaticism, even treason, in the early months of the nation’s response to Sept. 11. He was apprehended in late 2001 in the mountains of Afghanistan, where, at the age of 20, he was serving in the army of a nation that harbored terrorists, including Osama bin Laden. Weak and wounded, he was blindfolded and duct-taped naked to a stretcher, kept incommunicado in an uninsulated shipping container and interrogated by intelligence and FBI agents. Once home, he was charged with terrorism in a 10-count indictment, deliberately sought by the government in the Eastern District of Virginia, then still reeling from the attack on the Pentagon.

Lindh was pilloried by officials at the highest levels of the government. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft called him an “Al Qaeda-trained terrorist,” and the charges against Lindh originally included conspiring to commit terrorism. Those charges were dropped, however, and Lindh today is serving time not for any act committed against the United States, but for violating a Clinton-era presidential order that prohibits providing “services” to the Taliban. Lindh, who converted to Islam as a teenager, joined the Taliban before Sept. 11, not after; he did so to fight the Northern Alliance, not the United States. Lindh never took up arms against this country. He never engaged in terrorism; indeed, his commitment to Islam leads him to oppose the targeting of civilians.

John Walker Lindh broke the law. He pleaded guilty to the one crime of which he was guilty -- aiding the Taliban -- and to carrying a gun and hand grenades in the service of that regime’s war against the Northern Alliance. For that, he deserved to go to prison, and he should not receive a pardon. He is a felon, and his record should never be cleared.

The issue, then, is not Lindh’s guilt but his sentence. He was ordered to spend 20 years in prison, far longer than comparably situated defendants. Maher Mofeid Hawash pleaded guilty to violating the same law, and, after he agreed to cooperate, the government recommended that he serve seven to 10 years in prison. Yaser Esam Hamdi, who fought with Lindh in the Taliban military, was released back to Saudi Arabia in 2004, having spent less than four years in custody. David Hicks, an Australian, pleaded guilty to terror charges before a military commission and was sentenced to nine months. Of all the suspects rounded up across the world in the administration’s war on terror, only shoe bomber Richard Reid, who actively attempted to destroy a plane in flight, is serving a longer sentence than Lindh. And to deepen the inequity, Lindh’s sentence also gags him, preventing him from protesting his confinement or discussing his interrogation and treatment.

Some will object that Lindh pleaded guilty knowing he could receive this sentence. His plea was entered, however, under what one can only call extreme duress. A poll of potential jurors in the Eastern District of Virginia at that time found that more than a third were ready to sentence him to death without even hearing the case against him. His lawyers cut the best deal they could, but Lindh has spent nearly a quarter of his life in custody for his foolish decision to pursue his religious convictions by aiding another country in its civil war. Without relief, he will spend another dozen years, at least, behind bars.

The concept of mercy spans testaments and faiths, and any system of justice requires the embrace of mercy for leavening and legitimacy. In this case, justice has been served by Lindh’s time in prison. Now Bush is uniquely positioned to grant mercy, for while many will long argue over the effectiveness of his war on terror, none question his commitment to it. By giving Lindh a commutation, Bush could prove that his war is, as he often and properly asserts, not against Islam but against those who seek to harm America. Lindh never sought to harm his country; he has served long enough. Bush should send him home.