INDIANAPOLIS — American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh and other Muslims housed at a special federal prison unit in Indiana have used the guise of religion to show defiance toward their captors, a prison security official testified Wednesday.
Lindh, who is suing to overturn a policy preventing him and the other Muslims he’s housed with from performing their five daily prayers as a group, once delivered an incendiary sermon in Arabic at the Terre Haute prison’s Communication Management Unit despite a requirement that inmates speak English except for ritual prayers, security official Tim Coleman testified.
Lindh, who is serving a 20-year sentence for aiding the Taliban during the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, is suing to overturn a policy that prevents him and the other Muslim detainees from conducting their five daily prayers as a group. Lindh says group prayer is required under the school of Islam to which he adheres, and that the prison policy violates a 1993 law barring the government from curtailing religious speech without showing a compelling interest.
An official testified Monday — the first day of the trial — that the federal prison system barred unsupervised group prayer by inmates after a 2004 government report that raised concerns about the radicalization of Muslim inmates following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The official said there aren’t enough Muslim chaplains to allow for supervised group prayer at the more than 100 federal prisons.
Coleman testified Wednesday that he believes allowing group prayers at the Indiana prison unit would pose a security threat. Inmate-led prayers place one inmate in a leadership position where he can incite others to defy prison authorities, he said. He said Lindh has a history of acting defiantly toward prison officials.
“He’s not recognizing our authority and is trying to put religion over our authority,” Coleman said.
Coleman also claimed that Muslims, who form the majority of the inmates in the unit, have grouped together to intimidate other inmates and staff. He said about a dozen Muslim inmates surrounded him one time when he confronted one of their comrades about his behavior during the authorized weekly prayer, and non-Muslim inmates said they felt pressured into signing a petition in favor of permitting daily group prayers.
Under cross-examination by Ken Falk, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, Coleman acknowledged that many of the incidents he cited as serious threats didn’t result in inmates being disciplined.
Coleman also acknowledged there were contradictions in some of his testimony in court compared with what he had said previously in a sworn deposition, including an incident he claimed he witnessed in December 2008, which records show actually happened that August.
“I’m not sure what the discrepancy is in the dates,” he said.
Lindh, 31, is one of 24 Muslims among the 43 inmates in his unit. Prisoners there are under open and covert audio and video surveillance, and except for talks with their attorneys, all of their phone calls are monitored. Prisoners aren’t allowed to touch family members during tightly controlled visits. Without such strong security, the government claims, inmates would be able to conspire with outsiders to commit terrorist or criminal acts.
Unit prisoners of all faiths face restrictions on religious gatherings. According to court documents, Muslims there are allowed to pray together only once a week, except during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. At other times, they must pray alone in their individual cells.
The lawsuit was originally filed in 2009 by two Muslim inmates in the unit. Lindh joined the lawsuit in 2010, and the case has drawn far more attention since then. The other plaintiffs have dropped out as they were released from prison or transferred to other units.
In 2001, Lindh was captured in Afghanistan by U.S. troops and accused of fighting for the Taliban. Raised Catholic, the California native was 12 when he saw the movie “Malcolm X” and became interested in Islam. He converted to Islam at age 16. Walker told Newsweek after his capture that he had entered Afghanistan to help the Taliban build a “pure Islamic state.”
In 2002, Lindh pleaded guilty to supplying services to the now-defunct Taliban government and carrying explosives for them. He had been charged with conspiring to kill Americans and support terrorists, but those charges were dropped in a plea agreement. He was transferred to the Terre Haute prison in 2007.He is eligible for release in 2019.