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U.S. Taliban Fighter Spared Death Penalty in Indictment

By Dan Eggen and Brooke A. Masters
THE WASHINGTON POST -- WASHINGTON

John Walker Lindh, the restless Marin County, Calif., wanderer who journeyed halfway around the world to fight alongside the Taliban militia, was charged Tuesday with conspiring to kill U.S. citizens in Afghanistan and providing support to terrorist groups, including Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.

In outlining a case that could put Walker in prison for life, prosecutors also disclosed that Walker learned three months before the Sept. 11 terror attacks that bin Laden had sent operatives to the United States to carry out unspecified suicide missions, according to the criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va.

The current charges spare Walker the death penalty, but Attorney General John Ashcroft said prosecutors would continue to seek evidence to prove a capital offense such as treason.

Senior U.S. officials conceded, however, that they have been unsuccessful in directly linking Walker to the death of CIA agent Johnny Michael Spann, who was killed during a bloody uprising at an Afghan prison compound shortly after interviewing the 20-year-old convert to radical Islam.

President Bush, who previously decided with his advisers to have the Justice Department prosecute Walker, signed off on the criminal complaint before it was filed Tuesday afternoon, sources said.

Ashcroft said in a news conference that the U.S. government “does not casually or capriciously charge one of its own citizens with providing support to terrorists,” but that Walker “knowingly and purposefully allied himself with terror.”

The charges indicate that Ashcroft and federal prosecutors intend to take a hard line in the prosecution of Walker, whose strange transformation from rap-loving California teenager to unlikely jihad warrior has captivated the nation and prompted debate about parenting and permissiveness.

“We may never know why he turned his back on our country and our values, but we cannot ignore that he did,” Ashcroft said. “Youth is not absolution for treachery, and personal self-discovery is not an excuse to take up arms against one’s country.”

In a statement released by their attorney Tuesday, Walker’s parents, Marilyn Walker and Frank Lindh, complained that their son had been held for 45 days by military authorities without contact from his family. They said they have not received confirmation that any of their letters to him have been received.

“We now hope that we will see our son soon and give him the love and support he needs,” the statement said. “We are grateful to live in a nation that presumes innocence and withholds judgment until all of the facts are presented, and we pray for a just resolution of this case.”

The filing of charges in Alexandria would bring Walker into the same court system where prosecutors are preparing to try Zacarias Moussaoui, the French national who is the only person in the United States charged in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. Moussaoui, charged with conspiring with al-Qaida, could face the death penalty if convicted.

Two of the charges against Walker -- conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals and providing material assistance to al-Qaida -- carry maximum sentences of life in prison, according to Justice officials. The other two counts would bring penalties of 10 years in prison.