|Scepticism about the strength of the case against John Walker, the so-called American Taliban fighter, is growing, but few legal analysts expect him to escape a long prison sentence.
The odds are not in his favour. The court in Virginia that will hear the case is nicknamed the 'rocket docket' after its habit of delivering guilty verdicts in record time. The defence case will begin in a highly charged atmosphere on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York. The prosecution has been accused of misrepresenting a central plank of its case, while a 'confession' obtained by the FBI was not written by Walker, nor was it taped.
The journalist who conducted the first interview with Walker, 20, after he had been captured in Afghanistan said yesterday he had grave worries about the way his work had been used by the government lawyers.
Robert Pelton, whose interview with John Walker on CNN last December is one of the main strands of the prosecution case, told The Observer of his concerns.
He said there were a number of instances where the script accompanying the Walker film had been presented by prosecution lawyers as comments made directly by the accused. This made Walker appear more knowledgeable about the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the war in Afghanistan than he really was.
'These were words that I was writing to narrate a report with,' Pelton said. 'I am making assumptions because I know exactly what Walker did and where he came from, but at the same time let's say I'm a good journalist and I get my facts right. There are plenty of bad journalists out there - and if it becomes a precedent that the FBI uses television reports to convict people, God help us all.'
Pelton said it was important that the line between journalism and the US government's pursuit of its war aims should not be blurred.
'One of the things that makes America so unique is that we have these very rigid protections of the media and how we gather information,' Pelton added. 'The rules are being rewritten in terms of how we handle prisoners, how we fight wars. Now we see the same thing happening with the media. How the media is covering the war is now being used to prosecute the war, and that bothers me.'
His remarks came as it emerged that the FBI agents who obtained Walker's alleged confession may have broken the agency's rules by failing to get his statement either on tape or in writing. The only record of the two-day interrogation is a summary written afterwards by one of the agents who carried it out.
Gregory Wallance, a former federal prosecutor based in New York, said last night the defence was unlikely to put Walker on the stand but would try to argue this 'confession' was obtained under duress and was inadmissible.
'Everything turns on this confession. If that is thrown out, it seems to me there is very little proof against this guy. The government's biggest problem is that in order to make their main charges stick they will have to prove that Walker was actively supporting the al-Qaeda terrorist network in some form, not simply that he was a member of the Taliban who was fighting against the Northern Alliance,' Wallance said.
The only other significant evidence presented by the prosecution is a series of emails sent by Walker to his mother in northern California while he was travelling in Central Asia, in which he questioned why she wanted to live in the US because, he wrote, 'what has America done for anybody?' He told her that she should move to England.
One legal source said last night: 'This is very weak stuff indeed. As far as I am aware, there is no law in this country which says you can't tell your mother she should go and live in England.'
Walker is due to stand trial on 10 charges of supporting and aiding terrorists, three of which carry a life sentence. The case will be heard at the federal court in the eastern district of Virginia, which has a reputation within legal circles as being a 'prosecutor's court', partly because the jury pool is drawn from a community of retired military veterans, Pentagon employees and federal workers - a group which is usually hardline on law and order issues.
The trial is due to start on 26 August, with the prosecution case expected to last two weeks. The defence would start its case on or around 11 September.
'The government is attempting to make the connection between this trial and the attacks,' said defence lawyer George Harris. 'For us to be in trial at that time is prejudicial to the defendant.'
Doubts Cloud US Taliban Case
FBI Accused of Botching Crucial 'Confession' from Fighter
Lawrence Donegan, San Francisco
Sunday February 17, 2002
Doubts Cloud Show Trial of American Hero John Walker Lindh
Posted on the Independent Newswire on 17 February 2002
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