John Walker Lindh seeks prison prayer ruling

Terre Haute, Ind., facility has come under scrutiny for its restrictions before. Now the ACLU is involved

Topics: Islam, Religion,

American-born Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh and another Muslim inmate have asked a judge to order a federal prison to allow them and other Muslims in their highly restricted cell block to pray as a group, in accordance with their beliefs.

The American Civil Liberties Union last Thursday filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis for summary judgment on behalf of Lindh, 29, and Enaam Arnaout, 47, who claim that the prison’s policy restricting group prayer in the Communications Management Unit violates their religious rights. The ACLU contends there are no disputes over the facts of the case and that the law is on the inmates’ side, and asks the judge to rule in their favor.

Lindh, who is serving a 20-year sentence at the Terre Haute prison for aiding Afghanistan’s now-defunct Taliban government, wrote in a legal declaration that his religion requires him to pray five times a day, preferably in a group. “This is one of the primary obligations of Islam,” he wrote.

Praying in his cell is not appropriate, he said, because the Koran requires a ritually clean place for prayer and he is forced to kneel “in close proximity to my toilet.”

Lindh wrote that Muslims in the unit are currently being allowed to pray together once a day during Ramadan. At other times, the group prayers had been limited to once a week, court documents said.

The suit seeks class action status. Terre Haute associate warden Harvey Church testified in a deposition given in January that 24 of the 41 CMU inmates were Muslim.

The government says in court documents that there is no evidence that Muslims were confined to the CMU because of their religion and that most Muslims don’t adhere to the requirement of five daily prayers.

“Plaintiffs have shown … only six other Muslim inmates in the CMU who identify themselves as sharing the same views on daily congregate prayer as Plaintiffs,” government attorneys wrote.

Meanwhile, the government asked a federal judge in Washington, D.C., to dismiss a similar lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights that alleges conditions at the CMU at Terre Haute and another one in Marion, Ill., violate inmates’ religious and civil rights.

In that lawsuit, five CMU prisoners and two of their wives complain that the units place draconian restrictions on inmates’ contact with the outside world and even their own families without offering any reason. They also say inmates can be placed in the CMU without being told why, and have no way to earn their way out.

The government contends that conditions at the CMU– where inmates are free to leave their cells to watch television or play basketball, but not to hug their loved ones when they come to visit — don’t violate prisoners’ civil rights.

It argues in court documents filed last month that inmates don’t have a constitutional right to contact visits or a certain number of phone calls.

In April, another Terre Haute inmate, Sabri Benkhala, dropped his lawsuit claiming that the Bureau of Prisons had created the CMU in secrecy without following federal rule-making procedures. The bureau published rules governing the unit earlier this year, but they have not yet been finalized, said agency spokesman Edmond Ross.

U.S. Attorney Tim Morrison said Benkahla dropped his suit after he was moved out of the CMU.

Benkahla, 34, of Virginia is serving a 10-year sentence for his 2007 convictions for obstruction of justice and lying about training with militants in Pakistan. He is expected to be released in May 2016.

Arnaout, 47, is serving a 10-year sentence for racketeering after admitting in 2003 that he defrauded donors to his Benevolence International Foundation by diverting some of the money to Islamic military groups in Bosnia and Chechnya. The Syrian-born U.S. citizen is scheduled to be released in 2011.

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