ISLAMABAD, Pakistan —Five Virginia men arrested in Pakistan indicated Monday that they plan to fight terrorism charges that Pakistani police are recommending by using a strategy seen in U.S. courtrooms: that they were preparing for jihad but not planning any terror attacks.
The men told a Pakistani court that they had neither sought nor established contact with extremist groups, and traveled to the region only "to help the helpless Muslims," according to their Pakistani attorney. As they entered the courtroom, one of the men, Ramy Zamzam, told reporters: "We are not terrorists. We are jihadists, and jihad is not terrorism."
No charges were filed during the hearing in Sargodha, but Pakistani police said their formal recommendation that the men be charged under antiterrorism laws — and sentenced to life in prison — would be filed by today. A judge would decide whether to prosecute the five Americans, who are due back in court on Jan. 18.
The men, all from the Alexandria, Va., area, left the United States shortly after Thanksgiving without telling their parents, who alerted the FBI. They were arrested Dec. 8 at the family home of Khalid Farooq Chaudhry, the father of one of the men, Umar Chaudhry. The elder Chaudhry was released from custody on Monday by the judge because of insufficient evidence against him, officials said.
In addition to Zamzam and Chaudhry, the arrested men are Ahmad A. Minni, Waqar Khan and Aman Hassan Yemer. Their ages range from 19 to 25.
Pakistani police say the men were in contact with a Taliban recruiter, were seeking to join al-Qaida and came to Pakistan to carry out terrorist acts. The U.S. Justice Department is likely to consider charges in the United States.
An attorney for the men's families, Nina Ginsberg, said the statements by their Pakistani attorney "are consistent with the families' views that the five are not terrorists.''
"None of the family members has ever had the slightest indication that any of them would engage in the type of conduct being reported by the Pakistani officials,'' Ginsberg said.
The emerging legal strategy reflects a view among some lawyers that prosecutors have misused the word "jihad," especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and that it is a peaceful term that can mean studying Islam and caring for the sick.
"Jihad can take all types of forms, and it's a great disservice when government officials use jihad and terror interchangeably," said John Zwerling, whose client, Seifullah Chapman, was one of 11 Muslim men convicted after Sept. 11 in federal court in Alexandria of being part of a Virginia jihad network in the so-called paint-ballers case.