By Michael Doyle, McClatchy Newspapers –
WASHINGTON — An appellate court on Tuesday upheld the conviction of a former Afghan Taliban member who’s serving a first-of-its-kind life sentence in the Southern California desert.
Khan Mohammed was the first Afghan Taliban member to be tried in a U.S. courtroom, and the first individual convicted under a 2006 federal narco-terrorism law. Now incarcerated at U.S. Penitentiary Victorville, 80 miles east of Los Angeles, Mohammed failed to persuade the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that his drug dealing couldn’t be linked to a specific act of terrorism.
“Mohammed need not have planned for his drug proceeds to fund terrorist ends,” Judge Thomas B. Griffith wrote. “It is sufficient that the proceeds went to a terrorist — him.”
Even with some national-security secrets blacked out, the appellate court’s 23-page majority opinion sheds light on the dangerous operation in which a U.S. informer and Drug Enforcement Administration agents ensnared Mohammed in Afghanistan. Coming from a court that’s sometimes called the second most powerful in the United States because it oversees many federal agency actions, the decision also could shape future narco-terrorist prosecutions.
While upholding Mohammed’s conviction and life sentence, the appellate court panel gave the 42-year-old native of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province one final lifeline: Two of the panel’s three judges agreed that Mohammed still may pursue claims that his initial trial attorney was ineffective, in part for failing to aggressively challenge the credibility of the key prosecution witness. Mohammed’s initial trial attorney didn’t call any defense witnesses and offered no evidence on his behalf.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, presented considerable evidence that Mohammed viewed drug dealing as a way to hurt the United States. The trial judge, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, noted at Mohammed’s 2008 sentencing that “he equates selling heroin destined for American cities with shooting/attacking Americans who have armed forces in Afghanistan,” a trial transcript shows, and secret recordings showed Mohammed bluntly speaking for himself.
“We will eliminate them, whether by opium or by shooting,” Mohammed said to a wired-up U.S. informant while in Afghanistan, according to a tape recording presented at the four-day trial.