SEARCHING FOR JUSTICE Democracy Now | NPR radio interview
This is from a radio interview at
DEMOCRACY NOW (NPR Radio)
Wednesday, June 16th, 2004
Paintball Practice to Prison:
A Look At One of The Most Controversial Terrorism Cases in the Country
In Virginia, a judge sentenced three men to prison Tuesday, including
one to life and another to 85 years, on terrorism charges connected to
a game of paintball. But the sentence is coming under intense
criticism--from the judge herself who described the sentence as
"appalling" and "Draconian." We talk to one of the defendant's
attorneys who says the ruling marks "the greatest miscarriage of
justice of any case" he has ever seen.
In Virginia, three Muslim men were sentenced to up to life in prison
after the government accused the men of training for holy war abroad
by playing paintball games in the Virginia woods. One man was sentenced
to life. Another to 85 years and the third got eight years. The men
were accused of being connected to the Pakistani group Lashkar-i-Taiba
which is trying to drive India from the disputed region of Kashmir.
In an unusual development, the judge in the case, U.S. District Court
Judge Lonnie Brinkema, called the lengthy sentences "appalling" and
"draconian" but said she had no choice under federal law. She said "We
have murderers who get far less time. I've sent Al Qaeda members
planning attacks on these shores to less time. This is sticking in my
craw. Law and justice at times need to be in tune."
One of the defendant's attorneys called the sentence "the greatest
miscarriage of justice of any case" he has been involved in 34 years of practice.
John Zwerling, attorney based in Alexandria Virginia. He represented Seifullah
Chapman in the Virginia Paintball case. His client was sentenced on Tuesday to
85 years in jail.
David Cole, Washington-based constitutional attorney, professor at Georgetown
Law School and author of the book "Enemy Aliens: Double Standards and
Constitutional Freedom in the War on Terrorism."
AMY GOODMAN: Let me read you something from today's Washington Post. "The federal
judge imposed a life prison sentence yesterday on one member of the alleged
Virginia jihad network, an 85-year term on another. In an unusual criticism of her
own ruling, the judge said she found it appalling, but had no choice under strict
sentencing guidelines. U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said the 85-year
sentence she handed down to the defendant, who is 31 years old, was, "Sticking in
my craw." He and two other co-defendants were convicted by Brinkema in March of
conspiring to aid a Muslim group fighting India that the government has deemed a
terrorist organization. The judge told an Alexandria courtroom packed with
supporters of the three men, "What Mr. Chapman has been found guilty of is a
serious crime, but there are murderers who have served far less time." She said,
"I have sentenced al-Qaeda members planning attacks on these shores to far less
time." In sentencing him to prison and another to 97 months, Brinkema closed an
unusual case in which 11 Muslim men were originally charged with taking part in
paramilitary training, including playing paintball in the Virginia countryside to
prepare for Holy War abroad. Six defendants pleaded guilty. Only the three went to
trial. Two others were acquitted. We go now to John Zwerling, an attorney based in
Alexandria, Virginia. He represents one of the defendants in the Virginia paintball
case. His client, again, sentenced to 85 years in jail. We're talking to him on his
cell phone in his car. Welcome to Democracy Now!
JOHN ZWERLING: Good morning, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what happened here?
JOHN ZWERLING: Well, what point? I mean, this case was conceived in ignorance and a
misunderstanding of what Islam is all about. And under a rush to prosecute Muslims,
I really believe that. I didn't believe that when I first got into the case, but I
came to believe that. They misused the term jihad throughout the entire trial. You're
even now referring to it as the Virginia Jihad Trial because that's the name that the
government gave it so it would have a flashy ring in the press. And jihad, as you probably
know and many of your listeners probably know, means a struggle for good or struggle for
God and it is everything from depriving yourself from certain pleasures in service of God,
to trying to live a good life, to improving violent struggle through self-defense. But
always within the laws of the land that you live in. This is my understanding from having
spent about a year in this case and according to a lot of people. And, you know, when a
group of young men started to play paintball, some of them were doing it in what they
said were preparation for jihad. But they didn't mean that by going abroad and killing
people, they meant preparing themselves to be able to respond to whatever the future might
hold, whether it was defending the family from attacks, as many Muslims were required to
do after 9/11, including my client, who's home was defaced to people banging on doors, to
just being prepared. And he got it all twisted around. It was very sad. Very sad to see.
AMY GOODMAN: I would like to ask you about the judge's comments. That's pretty astounding
that she first sentenced your client to 85 years in prison and then said that she found it
appalling that she did that, that the sentence is sticking in her craw, but that
she has no choice. Explain.
JOHN ZWERLING: All right. Under the federal system, there are mandatory minimum sentences
that are applied to certain offenses. There are mandatory guidelines that judges have to
live with because Congress has refused to allow judges to use common sense and judicial
discretion and fashion appropriate sentences. And they often times result in the law not
allowing justice to appear in the courtrooms, especially for them to go to trial. And this
is not unique to this case. There are a lot of federal judges who have resigned their
positions over the drug laws where there are these horrendous minimum mandatory penalties
for first offenders, where crack cocaine is treated 100 times more harshly than powder
cocaine, even though the government knows that crack cocaine is primarily a prosecution of
minorities and powder cocaine less so. And so it has that discriminatory effect. For
example, possession of five grams of cocaine carries a five-year minimum mandatory penalty,
a five-year powder cocaine you can get probation. It's not unique. And in this case, the
using and possessing of a firearm to go hunting and also becoming more proficient, which
you would expect to go target shooting, became a 30-year offense minimum.
AMY GOODMAN: John, we're also joined by Constitutional Attorney David Cole. We're
actually having him on to talk about a different case. This case, the young man who was
acquitted who ran websites. But before we go to break, David Cole, I wanted to get your
comment on this case and the judge's own comments after she sentenced his client to 85
years in prison, saying she found what she was doing appalling.
DAVID COLE: Well, I think it is appalling and I think it is a reflection of how crazy we
have gotten in this war on terrorism. There is a case right now pending on appeal to the
Fourth Circuit in Virginia which involved a guy who was convicted of smuggling cigarettes
across state lines and then donating $3,000 of the proceeds to Hezbollah. No proof that he
was sending it for any sort of illegal purpose. His co-conspirators got five-year sentences.
But because he was convicted of also having made a donation to Hezbollah in Lebanon, he got
a 155-year sentence. And the sentences are just completely out of whack with any sort of
common sense or with any sort of moral culpability.
AMY GOODMAN: We are going to break. And then we're going to talk about another case.
I want to thank John Zwerling. His client was just sentenced to 85 years in jail with the
judge objecting to her own sentence that she handed down to this man. Also, we're speaking
to David Cole, so stay with us.
To purchase an audio or video copy of this entire program, call 1 (800) 881-2359.
2015-08-08 Sat 18:02:38 ct