WASHINGTON (UPI) — Over breakfast a good friend recently asked if I was following the “paintball” case. Believing him to be referring to the now-debunked case of the paintballers “hunting” nude women somewhere out West, I laughed and admitted as how I was aware of it generally but was not really “following” it.

However, my friend was referring not to the rather silly and inconsequential “Great Nude Paintball Hunt” case, but a most serious case being played out in federal court in Northern Virginia, involving several Muslim men who engaged in paintball practice for fun, but who were now being prosecuted as alleged, real-life terrorist conspirators.

The “paintball terrorist” case is turning out to be a fascinating study in how difficult at best, and overzealous at worst, the government’s legal war on terrorists and terrorist “sympathizers” is becoming. Unlike the silly nude paintball case, this one ought to be followed, and followed closely by civil rights and national security advocates alike.

None of the men have been linked either directly or indirectly to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. None seem to have engaged in any overt acts, or even a conspiracy, aimed directly at the United States, its military or its citizens. Perhaps an early indication of the strength of the government’s case was revealed by the fact that a federal judge took the highly unusual step of ordering some of the defendants — all young Muslim men and almost all American citizens — freed on pre-trial bail. The prosecutors were understandably shocked by this judicial move, which is a very rare step for any federal judge at any time, but particularly unusual in a case these days involving allegations of terrorist conspiracy.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the case is the fact that some of the charges against the young men allege violations of the Neutrality Act. The “what Act?” you might ask. And well you might. The Neutrality Act is a very old and very rarely used federal law which makes it illegal for a person to fight against an ally of our country.

In this instance, the defendants are accused of engaging in acts, including acts of violence, not here in the states, and not overseas against the United States. They are charged with actions against India, a U.S. ally, in the form of aiding a pro-Kashmir-freedom organization, Lashkar-i-Taiba.

Why should a federal prosecutor in suburban Washington, D.C., care if a group of Muslim young men, who believe fervently in the freedom of a small area far, far away, travel to that area and allegedly fire some shots at some foreign soldiers whose government (India) adamantly opposes freedom for that small, mountainous state (Kashmir)? This is where the “paintball case” turns gray.

The government alleges that the young men were doing more than simply discussing ways to help free the people of Kashmir. They were, according to the still-sparse evidence presented in court by the government in support of its indictment, engaging in talks and actions that were part of a global, pro-Muslim and anti-western, if not anti-U.S., terrorist movement. The feds point to the fact that the Lashkar organization itself is on the official list of “terrorist organizations.”

There’s a slight catch here, however. The organization was not placed on the terrorist list until December 2001 — after the young men had traveled to that far-away land to do whatever it was they did (and at this early stage of the proceedings, none of us on the outside know exactly what they did).

Moreover, because of alleged links between Lashkar and the Pakistani government (also a U.S. ally), the placing of the group on the list was — and perhaps still is — hotly debated within our own government.

As the case moves toward its November trial date, many interesting questions will be presented, and hopefully answered — answers that will shed light on just how far the federal government can or should go in its preemptive fight against terrorism.

We may find out it is illegal to even talk of a “jihad,” or to praise “jihad” fighters such as the “Mujahedeen,” who were once supported by no less an entity than the U.S. government. We may find out just how far Muslim clerics in the United States can go in energizing Muslim men. We may learn a U.S. citizen supports a movement fighting for freedom in another land only at risk of being prosecuted here at home.

And, we may find that playing at paintball in the Virginia countryside can land you in federal jail. Even if you’re not shooting at “Bambi.”

”’Bob Barr served in the United States House of Representatives from 1995 to January 2003, and prior to that as a United States Attorney and an official with the CIA. He currently practices law in Georgia and works with a number of organizations in the Washington area on privacy and civil liberties matters.”’

”'”Outside View” commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.”’

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