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December 4, 2001

U.S. Pro-Taliban Fighter's Fate Unclear - Rumsfeld

By Tabassum Zakaria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The fate of an American pro-Taliban prisoner involved in a revolt at a fortress in northern Afghanistan has not yet been determined, but he will enjoy all the rights to which he is entitled by law, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Tuesday.

John Walker, 20, was among about 80 pro-Taliban and al Qaeda fighters who surrendered following a prisoner revolt at the Qala-i-Jangi fortress near Mazar-i-Sharif. Hundreds of other prisoners were killed in the bloody uprising last week against their Northern Alliance captors.

Walker is in the custody of U.S. special forces near Mazar-i-Sharif and is receiving medical attention for his injuries, U.S. defense officials said.

"We found a person who says he's an American with an AK-47 in a prison with a bunch of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters," Rumsfeld told a media briefing. "And you can be certain he will have all the rights he is due."

The United States is considering using military tribunals, conducted in more secrecy than a courtroom trial, for suspected terrorists in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.


President Bush issued an order Nov. 13 establishing special military courts to put suspected terrorists from overseas on trial. The military tribunal is intended for non-Americans, so it was unclear whether it could apply to Walker.

Any charges filed against Walker were likely to be determined by the Justice Department rather than the military because he is a civilian, a U.S. government source said.

Rumsfeld said U.S. authorities were "looking at the various options" of how Walker should be treated legally but a decision had not yet been made.

"I do know a bit about the various options. And I have not landed on one at the moment," he said.

Bush said the government was trying to learn the facts about "this poor fellow" who appeared to have been misled into supporting a repressive regime.

"Obviously he has ... been misled," Bush told ABC's "20/20" in an interview to be aired on Wednesday. "It appears to me ... he thought he was going to fight for a great cause, and, in fact, he was going to support a government that was one of the most repressive governments in the history of mankind," he said.

At a minimum, the U.S. government would have to show that Walker used a weapon to prosecute him, analysts said.


"The possibilities extend from nothing to prosecution for treason. And where in that spectrum the actual outcome is depends on the facts," said Steven Aftergood, senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists.

"Was he an active combatant, did he commit violent acts against U.S. forces and allies, did he provide any kind of intelligence information that might have been used against U.S. interests?" Aftergood said.

"Associating with the Taliban I presume is not any kind of crime. Adhering to absurd beliefs is also not a crime, or a lot of us would be in big trouble," he said.

Walker's father pleaded late on Monday for the U.S. military to show mercy to his son.

Frank Lindh, on CNN's "Larry King Live," described his son as a "very sweet kid" who converted from Roman Catholicism to Islam when he was a 16-year-old high school student and traveled to Yemen the following year to learn Arabic.

Rumsfeld said reports about other pro-Taliban prisoners who had identified themselves as Americans were being checked.

"What I know is I have been told that there may be a couple of other people who have, at one time or another, contended that they were Americans, and people are looking for them," Rumsfeld said. "But whether there are Americans and where they may be, I don't know," he added.

Another U.S. official said later on Tuesday that the pro-Taliban prisoners describing themselves as Americans had recanted. "The two guys who claimed to be Americans are now claiming not to be," the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Copyright 2001 Reuters

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