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Sunday, October 19, 2003  

Portland 7 case ends with whimper

It's a wrap, as they say in the newspaper business. With the guilty pleas of the two remaining Portland Seven defendants who are in custody last week, the case came to an end.

The last members of the so-called "Portland Seven" in custody pleaded guilty today in federal court for participating in a plot to join the Taliban's fight against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Jeffrey Leon Battle and Patrice Lumumba Ford agreed to a plea bargain that will result in both serving 18 years in federal prison. Both pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to levy war against the United States.

Battle and Ford are among six men and a woman who were charged with conspiracies to wage war against the United States, to provide material support and resources to al-Qaida, and to contribute services to al-Qaida and the Taliban. Some also faced firearms charges. The remaining counts against Battle and Ford will be dropped after they are sentenced Nov. 24, according to the deal.

In addition, the only one of the septet who apparently made it to Afghanistan is said to have been killed in combat near the Pakistani border.

Pakistani troops battling an al-Qaida commando group this month killed Habis Abdulla al Saoub, the veteran Afghan fighter who tried to lead a squad of Portland residents overseas to potential martyrdom.

U.S. officials say they are convinced al Saoub died Oct. 2 with seven others during Pakistan's operation in a rugged area along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The FBI is seeking formal confirmation from Pakistan.

. . . Al Saoub, 37, was wanted in Portland as the leader of a group of men who tried to reach Afghanistan two years ago to fight U.S. troops. Five men and one woman have pleaded guilty to participating in the failed mission that ended on the Chinese-Pakistan border. Al Saoub never returned from China, evading capture despite a $5 million reward.The Jordanian native lived in the Portland area from 1996 until late 2001, when he and the others launched their mission to Afghanistan. In the 1980s, al Saoub was an Arab mujahedeen fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

Pakistani officials describe the moutainous, isolated area where al Saoub was allegedly slain as being a redoubt for al-Qaida and out of their control. They mounted the offensive in which he is thought to have been killed Oct. 2 in the village of Baghar.

I see some grounds for concern about the length of the sentences offered Battle, Ford and October Lewis, the least active of the seven. John Walker Lindh, who actually participated in fighting, was sentenced to only two years more than Battle and Ford. Lewis, Battle's wife, has agreed to a term of three and a half years. That seems lengthy considering the limited role she played in the conspiracy and her willingness to testify against the others. I fear this may fit into the pattern of sentencing African-Americans to longer prison terms for behavior similar to or less egregious than that of white defendants. However, due to the small number of persons convicted under the Patriot Act,it is difficult to know if disproportionality is occurring.

A defense lawyer for the Portland Seven has no doubt race is an issue.

One of Ford's attorneys, Stanley Cohen of New York City, said in a post-plea news conference that his client pleaded guilty, in part, because he is "a black man, a black activist labeled as a terrorist by the media without a trial who doesn't stand a chance" of getting a fair trial."

Cohen says polls conducted for the defense revealed potential jurors overwhelmingly perceived the Portland Seven as guilty.

There are doubtlessly bloggers who will give the episode the full 'those awful terrorists' treatment. That will occur despite the fact the evidence against most of the defendants consists of talk, talk and more talk. If they really were determined to commit terrorist acts, the long fallow period between their return from China and being taken into custody is inexplicable. What I mainly see in this saga is something more prosaic. This is an object lesson in what can happen when people are too vulnerable to the blandishments of 'mighty mouths,' i.e., the folks who are always so willing to tell other people what to think or do. Most of the defendants appear to have simply jumped on a bandwagon without giving much thought to what doing so meant. Now, they will have time to do plenty of thinking while residing in government housing. I don't believe the Portland Seven are that different from many, maybe even most, people. Some manipulative sort gives'em their marching orders and they are off on a frolic without a clue to the reason why.

My heart goes out to the families of the Portland Seven. By a rough count, at least a dozen children have been left fatherless by the guilty pleas and alleged death. The loss of a father's income alone can be enough to doom the children of prisoners to poverty. I know federal law precludes convicts making a profit from their stories, but I hope there is a way to help these children not pay for the errors of their parents.

5:49 PM