AP sues to open up court records

The Associated Press sued the Justice Department on Monday for access to American-born Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh’s petitions to have his 20-year federal prison sentence shortened.

The federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York, said the government has improperly refused to turn over Lindh’s pleas to have his sentence reduced on the grounds that doing so would be an unwarranted invasion of his privacy.

AP’s lawyers, in letters to the Justice Department and the lawsuit, however, said Lindh "is a ‘high-profile public figure’ whose ‘privacy interest in his petition is low to nonexistent.’"

Lindh’s lawyer, James Brosnahan, also has told the news cooperative that he would have turned over the documents himself, but he can’t under the terms of Lindh’s imprisonment.

The Justice Department did not immediately comment on the lawsuit.

Lindh, 25, was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 in the U.S.-led effort to topple the Taliban following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Prosecutors charged him with conspiring to kill Americans and supporting terrorists. He pleaded guilty to lesser offenses in 2002, including carrying weapons against U.S. forces. He avoided a potential life sentence and agreed to withdraw claims that he had been abused or tortured in U.S. custody.

The AP said it believes Lindh "contends in his petition that he was prosecuted and convicted unfairly in the immediate wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and that he was not, in fact, knowingly fighting the United States in Afghanistan."

The president decides whether to commute sentences or pardon people who have been convicted of crimes and have completed their sentences, usually on the recommendation of the department’s Pardon Attorney.

Lindh, who is held at the medium security federal penitentiary in Victorville, Calif., first applied for clemency in September 2004, following up on his request 15 months later. Justice officials told him it would be at least a year before any decision is made.

AP first sought the records on Jan. 4. Nine days later, the department replied it could only release the documents with Lindh’s written consent, according to the lawsuit. But Lindh is barred from making any public comment on the matter, including consenting to the release, under the terms of his plea agreement, the suit said.

A similar privacy issue is at the center of a long dispute between AP and the government over access to information about detainees at the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff last month ordered the Pentagon to release the identities of hundreds of detainees.


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