INDIANAPOLIS // A jailed American-born Taliban fighter is aiming to convince a judge his religious freedom is more important than security concerns.
Muslim convert John Walker Lindh says his rights are being violated because the federal prison deprives him of daily group prayer.
His closely watched trial will examine how far US prisons can go to ensure security amid the threat of terrorism.
Lindh was expected to testify yesterday in Indianapolis during the first day of the trial over prayer policies in the tightly restricted prison unit, where he and other high-risk inmates have severely limited contact with the outside world.
Lindh, 31, was captured by US troops in Afghanistan and charged with supporting terrorists.
He pleaded guilty to lesser charges and is serving a 20-year sentence for supplying services to the now-defunct Taliban government of Afghanistan, and carrying explosives for them. He is eligible for release in 2019.
The Hanbali school to which Lindh belongs requires group prayer five times a day, if possible.
But inmates at the prison are allowed to pray together only once a week, except during Ramadan.
At other times, they must pray in their individual cells. Lindh claims this does not meet the Quran's requirements and is inappropriate because he is forced to kneel in proximity to his toilet.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, which is representing Lindh, contends that the policy violates a federal law barring the government from restricting religious activities without showing a compelling need.
"This is an open unit where prisoners are basically out all day," said Ken Falk, the ACLU legal director. He said inmates were allowed to play basketball and board games, watch television and converse as long as they speak English so the guards can understand.
"They can do basically any peaceful activity except praying," he said. "It makes no sense to say this is one activity we're going to prohibit in the name of security."
Joe Hogsett, the US attorney for the Southern District of Indiana, said he believed that decisions about prison regulations were best made by prison officials, "not by convicted terrorists and other dangerous criminals who reside there".
"Mr Lindh is allowed to pray in his cell. He's allowed to pray wherever he happens to be as many times every day as his religion suggests to him that he should," Mr Hogsett said. "Where the rules must draw the line is how often must prison officials allow prisoners to congregate together?"
Lawyers for the government maintain that Lindh's behaviour since he was placed in the unit in 2007 proves the risks of allowing group prayer.
Court documents state Lindh delivered a "radical, all-Arabic sermon" to other Muslim prisoners in February that was in keeping with techniques in a manual seized from Al Qaeda members that details how terrorists should conduct themselves when they are in jail.
Mr Falk said Lindh's speech was not radical and was given during the weekly prayer that inmates were permitted. He said Lindh was not disciplined for the speech.
According to court documents, daily prayers were allowed from the time the unit opened in 2006 until May 2007, when Muslim inmates refused to stop in the middle of a prayer to return to their cells during a fire emergency.
The lawsuit was originally filed in 2009 by two Muslim inmates in the unit. Lindh joined in 2010, and the case has drawn far more attention since then.
The other plaintiffs have dropped out as they were released from prison or transferred to other units.