A Pakistani court charged five young Americans on Wednesday with planning terrorist attacks in the South Asian country and conspiring to wage war against nations allied with Pakistan, their defense lawyer said.
The men — all Muslims from the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia — pleaded not guilty to a total of five charges, the most severe of which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, defense lawyer Hasan Dastagir told The Associated Press.
"My clients were in good shape and high spirits," Dastagir said.
The men, all in their late teens or early 20s, were charged by an anti-terrorism court inside a prison in Sargodha, the city in Punjab province where they were arrested in December. They were reported missing by their families in November after one left behind a farewell video showing scenes of war and casualties and saying Muslims must be defended.
Their lawyer has said they were heading to Afghanistan and had no plans to stage attacks inside Pakistan.
The court also charged the men with planning attacks on Afghan and U.S. territory, said Dastagir. The charges did not specify what was meant by U.S. territory but could be a reference to American bases or diplomatic outposts in Afghanistan.
The men also were charged with contributing cash to banned organizations to be used for terrorism and with directing each other to commit terrorist acts.
"This last charge carries life in prison while the rest of the charges have lesser punishments," Dastagir said.
The trial will begin on March 31, and the prosecution is slated to present more than 20 witnesses, Dastagir said.
The defense plans to bring witnesses from the U.S. and provide evidence of community service carried out by the men back home, Dastagir said.
Pakistani police have publicly made several accusations against the young men, claiming the suspects contacted Pakistani-based jihadi groups. They accused the five of using the social networking site Facebook and video-sharing site YouTube while they were in the U.S. to try to connect with extremist groups in Pakistan.
During past court hearings, the men have claimed they were tortured by Pakistani police and FBI agents. Pakistan and the U.S. have denied those allegations.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said in a phone interview Wednesday from Washington that the parents of the five have received letters from their children detailing the alleged torture, including beatings and threats of electrocution.
In one letter, dated March 10, one of the five writes, "They beat the hell out of me and the rest of us until we said what they wanted us to say. Wallahi (by God) they even threatened to electrocute us the day before court so we don't tell the judge but we spoke out."
The letter refers to an earlier note written on toilet paper that they tossed out from a vehicle as they were taken away from a previous court appearance in which they also alleged torture.
"All the things we wrote on the toilet paper are true," the letter states. "By the way did news of the paper go all over the news even in the US — tell me about it."
The portion of the letter provided by Awad did not include the signature, so it was unclear which of the five wrote it. Awad said he received the letter from one of the men's parents.
Authorities in the United States and Pakistan have denied accusations of torture, and skeptics have said that would-be terrorists are trained to allege torture if caught as a form of propaganda.
The U.S. has pressed an often-reluctant Pakistan to crack down on militants in its territory, many of whom are believed involved in attacks on American and NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan. At the same time, several recent cases have highlighted incidences of foreigners signing up to join the insurgents on both sides of the border.
The men have been identified as Ramy Zamzam of Egyptian descent, Waqar Khan and Umar Farooq of Pakistani descent, and Aman Hassan Yemer and Ahmed Minni of Ethiopian descent.
Associated Press writer Matthew Barakat contributed to this story from in McLean, Virginia.
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