SARGODHA, Pakistan — The five Americans from the Washington, D.C., suburbs, who are on trial in Pakistan on terror charges, are the victims of evidence fabricated by the police, their defense lawyers will argue in detail in court this week.
McClatchy was briefed on the arguments and evidence to be presented in court, which the defense hopes will expose serious discrepancies in the prosecution case.
The case has heightened fears over the radicalization of Muslim Americans and put a spotlight on how extremists from around the world are drawn to Pakistan, America's critical ally in south Asia.
In a blaze of publicity, the five young American men, all Muslims, were arrested in December in the central town of Sargodha, and since charged with planning terrorist acts in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States. While the men admit they wanted to go to Afghanistan, they say for "community work", it is the evidence that they planned any terrorist activity in Pakistan or the U.S. that is to be called into dispute.
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Contacts the men allegedly had over email with a Pakistani militant linked to al Qaida could not have happened in the way the police claim, the defense will say. The date the authorities discovered the email account, according to the police's own version submitted to court, was several days after police had briefed journalists on the emails.
Similarly, maps of target sites and other incriminating evidence were officially found, according to the police report, over two weeks after the police had already told media about their existence.
The defense also will call into question police claims over the date of the men's arrest, which is several days after their widely reported detention on Dec. 9. According to the police, though the men were taken into custody on Dec. 9, they were allowed to go home each evening after interrogation before being formally arrested on Dec. 14. However, there were no reported sightings of the men after Dec. 9.
Khalid Farooq, the father of one of the men, who was held with them for some three weeks, told McClatchy that all of them were in continuous police custody after Dec. 8.
"I was with the boys, in the same cell," said Farooq. "There's no question of them being allowed out."
His son, Umer Farooq, 24, is on trial with Waqar Hussain Khan, 22, Ramy Zamzam, 22, Ahmed Minni, 20, and Aman Hassan Yemer, aged just 18. All of them grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, where they were a tight-knit, religious, group of friends.
The Farooqs are originally from Sargodha and the men claim they had travelled to the Pakistani town to attend Umer's arranged marriage to a local woman. The men, who allege they were beaten by police and deprived of sleep and food in custody, face life in prison if convicted on the most serious of the charges.
On Dec. 10 and 11, police briefed local and international media, on the record, about a Yahoo email account used to communicate with a Pakistani extremist called Saifullah, a detail that was reported around the world. They also said at the time that maps and jihadi or other extremist literature were found with the men.
However, according to the police report lodged with the anti-terrorism court in Sargodha, where the men are being tried, it was on Dec. 17 that the suspects disclosed "their secret email address along with password," allowing the authorities to find the communication with Saifullah.
In the police report, a copy of which was obtained by McClatchy, the police say that they found the extremist literature and maps on Dec. 26.
"By the 9th, the police had made up their mind what they were going to plant on these boys, because they had nothing on them," said defense lawyer Hasan Dastagir Katchela. "There are going to be some massive surprises" in court on Saturday when the trial resumes.
According to Katchela, the later time given for the arrest is to allow police to create email and other evidence that is dated after Dec. 9 and police have had to change the dates for the discovery of evidence, to fit the timing of when they were "cooked up".
On Dec. 11, a senior Sargodha police officer, Abbas Majeed Marwat, had described the Yahoo email account to McClatchy in detail, explaining that the men and Saifullah communicated by saving message only in the drafts folder, to which they both had access, so that no message would actually be sent over the web.
Speaking over the weekend, Usman Anwar, the district police chief for Sargodha, said the emails were genuine and "clearly show their evil intentions". He also denied the allegations of abuse, adding that the men had been "advised by their lawyer to make a hue and cry" to gain public sympathy.
The men are being tried in a court inside the Sargodha jail, which is closed to media and their families. The first day of the hearing was held at the end of last month.
U.S. officials haven't publicly raised any concerns over whether the men are receiving a fair trial. FBI officials were reportedly present for at least part of the men's initial interrogation. A spokesperson for the U.S. embassy, Ariel Howard, declined to comment on the issue. However, she said that allegations of mistreatment were investigated, without elaborating on the outcome.
"We take seriously all reports of abuse and torture and did raise those reports with officials from the Government of Pakistan. As we do in all such cases where prisoners report abuse, we requested immediate consular access and visited the prisoners," Howard said.
The men left behind a video, which reportedly contains scenes of American atrocities against Muslims and talks of "jihad" — a word often interpreted as holy war but in Islam it can also mean peaceful struggle or striving for self-betterment.
Amal Khalifa, the mother of Zamzam, said in an interview in recent days in Sargodha where she had traveled to see her son, that he had lost weight. "He looked like a skeleton," she said. She claimed the men wanted to go to Afghanistan to do charitable work.
"The video has nothing to do with terrorism. When they said jihad, they meant 'community service'," Khalifa said, adding that her son had done social work for years, such as helping the homeless while he studied at Howard University to become a dentist.
"If these boys wanted to do something bad, they could have done it in the United States," said Khalifa. "He's just a normal Muslim guy."
According to Pakistani police, the men had maps of the local air force base in Sargodha, as well as a nuclear power plant and water barrage at Chashma, in the north west of the country.
The men have pleaded not guilty to all charges, which include wanting to "wage war against neighboring countries" - Afghanistan; criminal conspiracy to commit terrorist activities inside Pakistan, and "planning to commit acts of depredation on the territory of Afghanistan and the United States of America."
(Shah is McClatchy's special correspondent based in Islamabad. He reported from Sargodha, Pakistan.)
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