Charles Wilson

INDIANAPOLIS: American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh and other Muslims housed at a special federal prison unit in Indiana have used the veil of religion to show defiance toward their captors and assert power over other inmates, prison officials testified Wednesday.

Lindh is suing the government to overturn a policy preventing him and the other Muslim detainees he’s housed with from performing their five daily prayers as a group. He once delivered an incendiary sermon in Arabic at the Terre Haute prison’s Communication Management Unit despite a requirement that inmates speak English except for ritual prayers, security official Tim Coleman testified during the third day of the trial over Lindh’s lawsuit.

Lindh, who is serving a 20-year sentence for aiding the Taliban during the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, says group prayer is required under the school of Islam to which he adheres, and that the prison policy violates a 1993 law barring the government from curtailing religious speech without showing a compelling interest.

Coleman said Lindh has a history of acting defiantly toward prison officials.

“He’s not recognizing our authority and is trying to put religion over our authority,” Coleman said.

However, under cross-examination by legal director Ken Falk of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, Coleman acknowledged that some of the incidents involving Lindh resulted from an interrupted visit with his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in months, and his religious practices. He said the most serious punishment Lindh received was 30 days without email.

Coleman said that Muslims, who form the majority of the inmates in the 55-cell unit, have been involved in group assaults and fights with non-Muslim inmates. He said about a dozen Muslim inmates surrounded him one time when he confronted one of their comrades about his behavior during the authorized weekly prayer, and non-Muslim inmates said they felt pressured into signing a petition in favor of permitting daily group prayers.

Coleman acknowledged that non-Muslim inmates had broken many of the same regulations the Muslims had, such as fighting and failing to cooperate with daily head counts.

Allowing only Muslims to perform their daily rituals in a group would foster resentment among prisoners of other faiths, which could trigger violence and give those who profess Islam a dangerous sense of power, said Harvey Church, the associate warden who oversees the secretive, high-security unit.

“When someone is given more opportunities than others, then that is a significant sign of power,” Church said. And when inmates think they have power, they start acting out against other inmates and prison staff, he added.

Currently, inmates are allowed only one weekly group service regardless of their religion, the prison officials said.