SARGODHA, Pakistan — Five American students caught in Pakistan last year were charged Wednesday with terrorism-related offenses, and they'll face a full trial and the prospect of a jail sentence. The men alleged that Pakistani police had tortured them.
The men, all Muslims from 18 to 24 years old from the Washington suburbs, were arrested in the central Pakistani town of Sargodha in December. They'd traveled to Pakistan after making contact with an Islamic extremist over the Internet.
The case fueled fears in Pakistan that radicalized Americans were now travelling to South Asia or the Middle East to receive terrorist training.
Shahid Kamal, their defense lawyer, told McClatchy that there were six charges against the men.
"The crux of the charges is that they tried to wage war against Pakistan and its allies, that they tried to fund proscribed organizations, and that they induced and directed people to commit terrorist acts," Kamal said.
The men, who were close friends since childhood, appeared in front of a special court inside a jail in Sargodha, and reporters weren't allowed to attend.
"We will be able to rebut the charges, and these people will go free," Kamal said.
The prosecution will present evidence at a hearing March 31.
The men alleged in a note passed to reporters at an earlier hearing that they had been tortured while in Pakistani custody, with the complicity of American intelligence agents. Khalid Khawaja, a former Pakistani intelligence agent turned human rights activist, who's championed the cause of the men and obtained legal representation for them, also asserted that the young men had been "tortured and had false cases registered against them."
One of the men, Umar Farouq, 24, has family links to Sargodha and brought them to the town. A second, Waqar Hussain Khan, 22, is also of Pakistani origin, with family ties to the southern port city of Karachi. The others are Rama Zamzam, 22, who was born in Egypt and who'd traveled several times to Saudi Arabia, and two men of Ethiopian origin, Ahmed Minni, 20, and Aman Hassan Yemer, 18.
At the time of their arrest, Pakistani police alleged that the men intended to travel to Afghanistan, to wage "jihad" or holy war against U.S. forces there, and also commit terrorist acts in Pakistan. Police claimed they had links to al Qaida. However, family members who spoke to McClatchy at the time insisted the men wanted only to go to Afghanistan.
At the time of their arrests, their plans had seemed amateurish and dependent on a contact they only knew over the Internet. After arriving in the country, they tried to join two Pakistani extremist groups and were turned away by both, police alleged at the time of their arrest.
Khawaja criticized the judicial authorities for excluding the news media from the latest hearing. "This is a strange police state. What have they done that's so bad they cannot be brought before the media, their voice cannot be heard?" Khawaja said. "If they werent Americans, if they were something else, then America would be making a fuss about their treatment."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY