INDIANAPOLIS – American-born Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh says that a federal prison rule barring him and other Muslims from praying together daily is “absurd” and contends that the United States is causing him to sin against his religion by prohibiting such gatherings in the name of security.
Lindh testified Monday in U.S. District Court here during a trial in a civil lawsuit seeking to overturn the prison policy, which he argues violates a 1993 law barring the government from curtailing religious expression without a compelling reason.
Lindh, who is serving a 20-year sentence for aiding Afghanistan’s Taliban government before its overthrow, is one of 43 inmates housed in a closely monitored unit at the federal prison in Terre Haute. Twenty-four of them are Muslim.
Inmates in the tightly controlled Communications Management Unit – one of only two in the United States – are allowed to eat, talk, play cards and exercise as a group, but praying together is limited to once a week except during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Most days, they must pray alone in their individual cells.
Gatherings by other faiths also are limited.
Lindh, 31, said the restrictions violate the beliefs of his branch of Islam, which require group prayer five times a day, if possible.
“I believe it’s obligatory,” Lindh said of the daily group prayer. “If you’re required to do it in congregation and you don’t, then that’s a sin.”
The government contends that preserving security in the unit, where inmates’ contact with the outside world is sharply restricted and most of their movements are under audio and video surveillance, makes it necessary to limit group activities, including prayer.
“There are no legitimate security risks by allowing us to pray in congregations,” said Lindh, who has been at the Terre Haute prison since 2007. “It’s absolutely absurd.”
A cluster of U.S. marshals escorted the shackled Lindh into the downtown courtroom. The bushy-bearded Lindh, who wore an olive green prison uniform and a white prayer cap, smiled at his mother, Marilyn Walker, who sat in the third row and returned a strained smile. Four marshals stood near a table where Lindh sat with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana.
Lindh became agitated when Deputy U.S. Attorney William L. McCoskey asked him why he had not stood along with everyone else when Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson entered the courtroom.
“It’s against my religion,” Lindh said. “This procedure of standing up for people is unacceptable.”
He also said he didn’t acknowledge the government’s authority to restrict his religious practices.
“I don’t recognize any law but the Sharia of Islam,” Lindh said in response to questioning by government attorneys. “There is no compromise.”