SEARCHING FOR JUSTICE Caged Prisoners 1
Masoud Khan's family is eager to point out that he's an American citizen.
The Montgomery Village man who went to Gaithersburg High School and worked at The Home Depot on Shady Grove Road now spends his time reading books from a federal prison library.
He has been labeled an Islamic extremist by the United States government, convicted in March, 2004 of conspiring to aid a Muslim group that the United States deemed a terrorist organization four years ago.
In a non-jury trial, Khan was found guilty on eight of 12 federal terrorism charges, including conspiring to contribute services to the Taliban.
He maintained his innocence.
It has been more than a year since Khan was sentenced to life in prison, plus 65 years, and put behind bars.
His mother Elisabeth is fighting depression.
His 2-year old son cries when visiting time is over.
Khan's patience has been tested.
He and his family are still trying to find hope.
Later this week, Khan is scheduled to be resentenced by the same federal judge who said she was frustrated by restrictive sentencing guidelines on terrorism, arguing that the time imposed on Khan and two other men were "sticking in her craw," according to court documents and Khan's lawyer Jonathan Shapiro.
Shapiro says he's hopeful the sentence could be reduced, a first break in a long appeals process that is both expensive for the Khan family and emotionally draining.
They're not giving up.
"In the same way that my life took a sudden shocking turn, it is possible for it to take another turn for the better at any time or place," Khan wrote in a letter to The Gazette.
He is incarcerated in a Virginia prison.
"I do have hope."
Khan's brother Ahmad often lies awake at night, wondering if it could have been him.
Their mother Elisabeth owned three properties in Pakistan, where their late father had been born, and needed someone to appear with the original housing documents before court in order to sell them, she said.
Ahmad was in Morocco with his wife, so Masoud, then 27 years old and working at Home Depot, said he would go.
It was days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
"I said, 'You've got to go and get back before they stop everyone from traveling,'" Elisabeth Khan said.
"That was a big mistake."
While in Pakistan, Khan visited the training camp of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based group fighting India for disputed land in Kashmir.
Elisabeth said he was looking at a residential area of the camp and thinking about buying land for a home.
Prosecutors argued he was training with the group and fired weapons like an AK-47.
He was convicted, among other charges, of conspiracy to levy war against the United States.
Khan was one of 11 Muslim men involved in what was dubbed the "Virginia Jihad" case, where prosecutors said the men met to train for combat overseas with paintball games in Virginia.
Nine were convicted or pleaded guilty; two were cleared.
Khan was given the harshest sentence.
The convictions were hailed by the Justice Department as an important blow against terrorists based in the United States.
But some civil libertarians say Muslim men are being imprisoned with little evidence by a government eager to make up for the wrongs of Sept. 11.
"If I, or a Jewish American person, or a Catholic American person went overseas to Israel or Ireland and had the same kind of conversations Masoud had about his religious group, I don't think we'd be thrown in jail," said Steven Lapham of Montgomery Village, one of Khan's supporters.
"There's all kind of things, when you piece them together, they can sound like a conspiracy," Lapham said.
"But you have to look at them through paranoid glasses."
Taking a stand
Lapham, who lives a few miles from the Khan family, did not know Khan in the 15 years Khan lived in Montgomery Village.
Lapham has no evidence that he is innocent, he points out, but is concerned about the "harsh" sentence imposed on a man that he thinks would get less jail time if he weren't Muslim.
Lapham is a white Christian, and a father.
In January Lapham set up a Web site for Khan called Muslim American Buddy.
On it, Lapham likens Khan's imprisonment to the Japanese American camps in the United States during World War II.
Other links on the site go to a petition to U.S. representatives to investigate Khan's case, which Lapham decries as a blow to civil liberties and free speech.
So far, more than 200 people have signed the petition online, he said.
"Things are still very slow," he added.
"People don't want to hear bad news about their own country and people don't want to believe that their First Amendment rights really are eroding."
When he can, Lapham goes to town hall meetings or events like the Montgomery Village July Fourth parade to pass out fliers about Khan.
He and Elisabeth have written to U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen, and U.S. senators Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, asking them to look into the case.
While they receive brief responses, they've found little help.
Khan's family, including his mother, wife, brother and son who still live in Montgomery Village, say their mosque, the Islamic Center of Maryland, has been very supportive, at times making donations to support Khan's wife.
Elisabeth has already paid $250,000 in legal fees and had to take out a $25,000 loan on her house.
She often finds it hard to focus on her job at a law firm, she said, but knows that she needs the money.
"You want to have hope, but it's hard," said Elisabeth.
"My problem is, I keep thinking there must be something more I can do to help.
And the answer always comes back no."
Waiting for more
Elisabeth and Ahmad remember the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; the sorrow they felt for the victims and the families, and the anger they felt toward the killers.
And they remember the fear.
"We, as Muslims, thought, this is the end, and the beginning of the end," Elisabeth said.
"We were going to be blamed all over the world."
Prosecutors used the terrorist attacks as an important emotional tool during the Virginia trial.
"While the Pentagon was still smoking," federal prosecutor Gordon Kromberg said during trial, according to court documents.
"Mr. Khan decided now is the appropriate time to go fight the Americans."
The U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement that praised the convictions as an important step in making America safer.
"These convictions are a stark reminder that terrorist organizations are active in the United States," then Attorney General John Ashcroft said in the statement.
"We will not allow terrorist groups to exploit America's freedoms for their murderous goals."
But Elisabeth Khan maintains her son's innocence and says that she is disillusioned by the government's attempt to "put away Muslims, regardless of proof."
"I grew up in Washington and was so patriotic, you expect everyone to be honest," she said.
Prosecutors told The Gazette last year that Khan was given a fair trial, and will continue to be represented fairly in upcoming appeals.
Prosecutors did not respond to requests for comment on Friday's resentencing.
Other problems keep Elisabeth up at night, like Khan's diet in prison, whether mail gets to him, and why her house phone is restricted from collect calls, often the only way to talk to her son in prison.
Since April Khan has been held in solitary confinement, and his family doesn't know why.
His visiting hours at a Virginia prison are on Tuesdays for several hours.
Elisabeth and Ahmad work.
Khan's wife does not drive.
To see him, they have to rearrange their schedules weeks in advance.
Sometimes Elisabeth thinks about the 32 FBI agents that surrounded her house with automatic rifles May 8, 2003, to arrest Masoud.
"They had to have someone.
Someone to make them look good," she said.
"Bottom line is they just got the wrong man."
In a few days she will sit through her son's resentencing, which stems from a Supreme Court decision earlier this year that overturned mandatory-sentencing guidelines, like those used to sentence Khan.
Khan doesn't think much will come out of the resentencing, he wrote.
But he has hope that an appeal will set him free.
"This is not the type of case where one can expect a lot of breaks," Khan wrote. "...
[M]y only real difficulty and challenge has been exercising my patience.
At home, Elisabeth and Ahmad are getting used to the stares from neighbors, or strangers at the grocery store.
They want to tell people that the Khans are just like them: Americans who care about the nation where they live.
They say the "great evil" in the case is ignorance.
"The thing is, it could get worse," for American Muslims, Elisabeth said.
"This is just not the country I thought it was."
2015-08-08 Sat 17:43:58 ct