New York Times Editorial
January 16, 2002

The Prosecution of John Walker

The Bush administration is doing the right thing by prosecuting John Walker in a civilian court rather than a military tribunal or a court-martial for his association with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. The charges the government has brought against the young American, including conspiring to kill United States soldiers in Afghanistan and aiding a terrorist group, seem more appropriate than treason, which can bring a death sentence. Mr. Walker will face extremely serious charges that could be punished by life imprisonment. As the case proceeds, the Justice Department must ensure that he receives a fair trial.

Mr. Walker, a 20-year-old Californian who wandered the Muslim world and joined what he believed to be a holy struggle for the spread of militant Islam, is guilty of abysmal ignorance, twisted priorities and a shocking lack of remorse after Sept. 11. He should be held accountable if he aided terrorist groups and fought against American forces in Afghanistan. Determining whether his actions were criminal can best be done under the safeguards provided by civilian courts.

The Justice Department, drawing on statements it says Mr. Walker has made voluntarily since his capture in Afghanistan in December, alleges that he joined the Taliban to fight against the Northern Alliance. It says he attended a terrorist training camp of Al Qaeda and met with Osama bin Laden. What is not known yet and is likely to be a central legal issue is whether he intentionally sought to harm America or inflicted such harm.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said yesterday that Mr. Walker had knowingly allied himself with groups seeking to harm his country, at least after Sept. 11. The Justice Department's criminal complaint against Mr. Walker says he told the F.B.I. agents interrogating him a month ago that he knew at the time that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were "against America and the government of Saudi Arabia" and that Al Qaeda's purpose was "to fight Americans." Later, when he trained with Al Qaeda, Mr. Walker learned from one of his instructors, he told the agents, that Osama bin Laden had sent people to the United States to carry out several suicide operations; but Mr. Walker still remained at the camp.

These are serious allegations and could prove highly damning. On the other hand, Mr. Walker told his F.B.I. interrogators that when he was offered a choice between fighting the Northern Alliance and traveling outside Afghanistan to conduct operations against the United States and Israel, he chose to remain in Afghanistan. Since that battle was not initially against the United States directly, proving that he deliberately acted against his country may be difficult. At least it is now clear that Mr. Walker will have his day in court, which is as it should be.

Copyright 2002, New York Times Company. All rights reserved.

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