A Pakistani court convicted five American citizens on terror charges today. The men were fined and sentenced to 10 years in jail by an anti-terrorism court. Their successful conviction heightens concerns about American Muslims and other westerners traveling to Pakistan to seek militant training and connect with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other extremist organizations.
The five Americans – who are of Pakistani, Egyptian, Yemeni, and Eritrean origin – have been sentenced days after Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad pleaded guilty to weapons and terrorism charges in connection with his attempted Times Square bombing. The Associated Press reports that it is surprisingly easy for “would-be jihadists” to reach training facilities in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The five men were arrested in the northeastern city of Sargodha after their families reported them missing in December. All grew up in Alexandria, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C. They have been charged on two counts, reports Reuters: criminal conspiracy and funding a banned terror organization.
Deputy Prosecutor Rana Bakhtiar said the men were convicted on two counts each, with one carrying a 10-year sentence and the other carrying five years, to be served concurrently. They were also fined a total of 70,000 rupees ($821).
“Both these sentences will begin concurrently and in practice they will spend 10 years in jail. We will appeal in the high court to enhance the sentence,” Bakhtiar told reporters.
According to The Washington Post, “officials alleged that all five men intended to go to South Waziristan for training and eventually travel to Afghanistan and fight alongside the Taliban against US troops stationed there.”
According to the Associated Press, “the trial moved with unusual speed in a country where cases often drag out for years and where terror convictions are rare and often overturned on appeal.” Prosecutors relied on email records and witness statements to prove that the Americans were plotting terror attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan and funding banned extremist groups.
There is, however, a high likelihood that the convictions against Umar Chaudhry, Ramy Zamzam, Ahmad A. Minni, Waqar Khan, and Aman Hassan Yemer will be overturned, reports the BBC. Correspondent Syed Shoaib Hasan in Karachi says the convictions are by no means the final word:
Pakistani anti-terrorism courts often have their convictions overturned by higher courts, often because of a lack of conclusive evidence, our correspondent says.
Dozens of suspected militants have been released over the last six months, including some implicated in high profile cases such as the attack on the Marriott hotel in Islamabad in September 2008, he adds.
Writing in Perspectives on Terrorism, a journal of the Terrorism Research Initiative, Shabana Fayyaz traces the history of Pakistan’s anti-terrorism legal infrastructure. She points out that anti-terrorist courts are politically influenced and raise concerns about human rights violations:
Since October 1999, the anti-terrorism legal regime has been a mix of both change and continuity. The [Anti-Terrorism Act] of 1997 has been revised and amended amid the changing political and strategic context at the domestic, regional, and the international level. It is essentially an interplay of the national, regional, and global understanding of the issue of terrorism following the terrorists attacks on 11 September. As discussed previously, strategic political issues and differences also overshadowed the adoption of the amendments to the anti-terror legal regime. The intent being the speedy disposal of the cases or political foes.
Time Magazine reports that foreigners also continue to travel to Pakistan to study in Islamic seminaries, despite a 2005 government ruling prohibiting their enrollment in madrassahs. Islamic seminaries are accused of indoctrinating and radicalizing students and encouraging them to wage ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan.
More than 500 of Jamia Binoria’s 5,000 students are foreigners from 29 countries including the US, the UK, Canada, Indonesia, and even Fiji, as well as other states in the Middle East and European Union. Mufti Naeem says that if visas were easier to get “two- to three-thousand foreign students will come,” based on the level of interest he’s received from abroad.
US officials acknowledge that anyone who has visited Pakistan or a madrasah will be subjected to additional scrutiny upon entering the US.