Monday, January 18, 2010

SARGODHA, Pakistan — Five Americans arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of terrorism told a court Monday that they had been tortured by police — charges that could add to political sensitivities surrounding the case.

The men made the allegations during a hearing before a special anti-terrorism court in Sargodha. The session was held in order for police to submit a charge sheet alleging that the suspects conspired in a terrorist act, a formal legal step that brings them closer to a possible indictment.

The men also shouted the allegations to reporters as they were driven from the building. No details as to the nature of the alleged torture were given.

Prison authorities and police denied any ill treatment. A U.S. Embassy spokesman said he had no immediate comment about the torture allegations, but he noted consular officials have visited the men.

The five men, all young Muslims from the Washington’s Virginia suburbs, were detained in December at a house in the Punjabi town of Sargodha not long after arriving in Pakistan.

Police have accused them publicly of plotting terror attacks in Pakistan, having links to al Qaeda and seeking to join militants fighting U.S. troops across the border in Afghanistan after contacting Pakistani militants on the Internet. Lawyers for the men say they wanted to travel to Afghanistan and had no plans for attacks in Pakistan.

The case comes amid strong anti-American sentiment in Pakistan among the public, media and government and could become an irritant between the two nations, especially if there are suspicions that they are being mistreated or their trial is unfair.

The judicial process in Pakistan is prone to corruption and pressure by powerful interests, and terrorism trials take place behind close doors. Allegations of mistreatment of prisoners are commonly heard.

The media and the public were not allowed to attend the court session, but a court order obtained by the Associated Press said the men “have made a complaint that they have been tortured in the custody of police.” It instructed the men to undergo medical examinations.

Later, reporters heard several of the men shout three times in unison, “We are being tortured,” as they were driven from the courthouse in a prison van.

Senior police Officer Usman Anwar denied the allegations, as did Aftab Haanif, the deputy superintendent of the jail where the men are being held, who said they were receiving better food than regular inmates.

“We categorically deny that we tortured them at any stage of the interrogation,” Officer Anwar said. “The court has ordered a medical examination that will make everything clear.”

In Monday’s hearing, police submitted a charge sheet and evidence to the court in which the men are accused of violating several sections of Pakistan’s penal code and anti-terrorism law. The most serious charge is conspiracy to carry out a terrorist act, which could carry life imprisonment depending on what the act is, according to prosecutor Nadim Akram Cheema and police Officer Amir Shirazi.

The charge sheet also said they planning a terrorist activity in a foreign country, a likely reference to Afghanistan.

Prosecutors now have to decide whether the case is strong enough to charge the men and bring them to trial.

The five were reported missing by their families in late November after one of them left behind a farewell video showing scenes of war and casualties and saying Muslims must be defended. Two are of Pakistani descent, one is of Egyptian descent, and two are of Ethiopian descent.

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