Thoughts on the 5th anniversary
of the arrest of Yassim Aref
and Mohammed Hossain.
On Tuesday, August 4, 2009 over 100 people marched through the streets of
Five years ago, I was with Mark Dunlea, an Albany activist, and Dave McReynolds, a peace activist (who was then the Green Party candidate for Senator from New York), when we heard that two "terrorists" had been arrested in Albany and that there would be a press conference about the arrests. The three of us jumped into my car and drove down to the press conference, where we found Governor Pataki, New York Senator Schumer and Albany Mayor Jennings talking tough about fighting terrorist activity in
From the very start of this case, it was clear to me that this case had nothing to do with terrorism. This is because:
1. I was an anti-war activist, and as such, I had thought about the phony War on Terror and had come to understand it as the US government’s justification for its imperial wars;
2. I had been involved in defending another man from the same mosque, Imam Umar, who was also attacked for fabricated reasons used to justify their war on Terror.
The Case of Imam Umar
Imam Umar had worked for 25 years as a Muslim chaplain in the
This kind of talk coming from a Black man and a Muslim could not be tolerated during the
Eventually, police raided Imam Umar’s home and carted away books, tapes, computers, financial records, his kids' game systems, and other personally possessions. They charged him with owning a .22 caliber rifle and a shot gun, which he had owned for several decades, since the time he had owned a farm in upstate
Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace (BNP) organized a defense. It was a very public defense with rallies, press conferences, petitions, and letter writing campaigns. We had Imam Umar speak at anti-war demonstrations, and we mobilized public support for him. We organized people to attend the court appearances in
At the sentencing hearing, Umar gave a political talk explaining what the prosecution of him was about. Then the judge gave a long talk that was sympathetic to Imam Umar; the judge seemed to understand that he had done nothing wrong and took the prosecution to task for prosecuting the case. For Imam Umar's “crime,” he received a $100 fine and one-year's worth of home imprisonment with very liberal exceptions. Umar was allowed to leave home to work, for medical reasons, and for religious practice. Umar then stood up in court and told the judge that he would refuse to wear an ankle bracelet, a device used to ensure that he is where he is mandated to be. He stated that this ankle bracelet was a throwback to the shackles worn by slaves, and he would not allow his children to see him this way. The judge agreed that he did not have to wear the ankle bracelet.
Today, Imam Umar is back in court, but this time, Umar is the plaintiff and the government is the defendant. The government has refused to return Umar’s belongings, which they took when they raided his home and have never returned.
Forming the Muslim Solidarity Committee
After the arrests of Aref and Hosssain, and after the first meeting at the Women’s Building, a second meeting was held at the Quaker Meeting House, on
What the FBI had done was to invent a crime and then did what it had to do to make it look like Aref and Hossain went along with it. The FBI did this so they could make Americans feel we are in danger from Muslims and that we should therefore support the murders of Muslims in
The brief details of the case are that the government caught a Pakistani man name Malik selling illegal drivers licenses to other immigrants. They told him he was facing long prison time, but they could make the crime and prison time go away if he would participate in a sting operation to put Aref and Hossain in jail. When all of this started, Hossain, who owned a local pizza place, was having financial trouble. Malik started going to the mosque, befriended Hossain, and offered to loan him money. In the Muslim religion, interest on a loan is not permitted, so Malik made other arraignments: he would give Hossain more than the $5,000 he needed, and Hossain would return the rest. He explained that having money come from Hossain in this way was something that was needed for his import business. Hossain agreed, but he wanted it all in writing and wanted Aref, the Imam of the mosque, to validate that it was all legal according to Islamic law. This is a common practice among Muslims. All the meetings between Malik and Hossain, and later with Aref, were taped by the FBI.
Slowly, as the meetings progressed, Malik started telling Hossain that he was going to use some of the money returned from Hossain for a hand-held missile to be used against a Pakistani official. Hossain objected, but continued with the loan arrangements and didn’t turn Malik in, so he was an accessory to a phony terrorist plot invented by the FBI. Aref claims that he did not know about the hand held missile but the government claims that he did. Although the government was taping the meetings the tape that had the “proof” that Aref knew had a problem and the “proof” never got taped. However, Malik’s FBI handler claimed that he was listening over Milik’s wire from his car and he heard Aref being told about the plot. Aref and Hossain were convicted in an atmosphere of fear and anger directed towards Muslims after 9/11.
The Muslim Solidarity Committee organized the community to send letters to the judge, just as we had done with Imam Umar. We packed the courtroom during the sentencing and had others outside the court holding a vigil. Aref and Hossain made statements at the sentencing hearing Aref’s statement was defiant and political; he condemned the government as the real criminal. The federal sentencing guidelines called for each man to be sentenced to 30 years in prison, but the judge recognized mitigating circumstances, including the large amount of community support, and instead sentenced each man to 15 years in prison.
The sentence of Aref and Hossain not only was a tremendous blow to them and to all Muslims and justice loving people, but it was tremendously devastating to their families. The Muslim Solidarity Committee and other community members have been doing their best to support the families. We have helped them with housing, schooling for their children, visits to the prisons, and other basic needs. If the aim of the FBI was to create a wedge between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities, they did not succeed.
As the Muslim Solidarity Committee took form with listservs, websites, and a group of very committed people, we started learning about other similar cases in upstate
As a result of this effort to reach out to others who have been wrongly prosecuted, we came in contact with the other groups of Muslims in similar situations, including a group from
Thinking about his question inspired me to write up this account. I think the answer to his question is our decision to be very public with our campaign and because we have incredibly committed people.
It is not always obvious to people that they should run a public campaign to defend someone who has been wrongfully prosecuted. Some people think that if you were to go public, you could anger the prosecution and the judge and they might therefore be harsher on the defendant. Lawyers sometimes advise against doing a public defense campaign, believing that they can make the best arguments to sway the court and that a public campaign could hurt their efforts. In my experience, both of these positions are wrong. They come from the notion that the government and the prosecution must have just made a mistake and so, with enough logic and argument, we could point this out to them and they would then do the right thing. I don’t think so. The firing of federal prosecutors who refused to conduct political prosecutions under the Bush administration is a clear sign that they know exactly what they are doing. Unfortunately, under the Obama administration, the same group of federal prosecutors is still doing the same thing as they did under Bush.
The analysis presented in this article takes the position that the government and the prosecution know that are going after innocent men, are doing it for their own political reasons, and will not be swayed by argument. What might sway them is shining the light of day to their crimes, exposing their egregious violations of civil liberties and due process rights. This might cause them to back off, because the only power that can oppose the power of the courts, the police, and the government is the power of the people. This can happen only if people see the truth of what is going on and thus have a consciousness raising experience. Our campaigns in support of Aref and Hossain and other wrongfully prosecuted Muslims have helped expose the misdeed of the government. The government and the FBI have been made to pay a price, which they are still paying.
To conduct such a public campaign requires committed and brave people. The Muslim Solidarity Committee consists of such courageous people. It includes lawyers who have given of their time and efforts, for no pay, to achieve justice. We have the brave people from the Mosque who attended our rally and prayed and ate with us on August 4th, at a time when Muslims are still being set up. We have courageous and articulate defendants like Hossain and Aref, and a great group of people organizing meetings, web sites, transportation, editing writings and raising money.
It is my hope that some of the lessons of our experience will be learned and replicated throughout the country. If this were to happen, the government would think twice about wrongfully prosecuting people. They would have to decide if they have more to lose than gain.