Alcatraz

Alcatraz by ben pollard, on Flickr

Jeanne Theoharis is professor of political science at CUNY’s Brooklyn College, one who takes the responsibility of her profession towards her students, and to the society she lives in, very seriously. When she discovered that one of her former students, Syed Farad Hashmi, was being treated unjustly by the U.S. judicial system, she spoke out, and she continues to do so.

A new article at the Chronicle of Higher Education reviews Hashmi’s ordeal, and links the attacks on civil liberties made after 9/11, especially on Muslims and including those that swept up Hashmi, to earlier periods of modern U.S. history, including the internment of Japanese during World War II, the McCarthy period, and the Cointelpro attacks on Native American, African-American, and other organizations, particularly on the left.

A year ago now, Hashmi was sentenced for fifteen years a year ago when, after suffering three years in extreme solitary confinement under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) approved by the Attorney Generals Mukasey and Holder, he accepted a plea bargain on the single charge of conspriacy to provide “material support” to “a foreign terrorist organization. (Three other charges were dropped.) But lacking any actual links to terrorism, or any history of violence whatsoever, evidence points to governmental animus against Hashmi for his outspoken public criticism of denial of Muslim civil rights and constitutional protections in the post-9/11 period.

Like the Preventive of Injury (POI) orders imposed on alleged Wikileaks leaker PFC Bradley Manning, who is currently in isolation at the Marine Corps Quantico brig, and like Hashmi is essentially a political prisoner, the onerous conditions of detention imposed by the SAMs — which restrict exercise, access to the media, to reading materials or the outside world in general, allow for no privacy, and are intrusive upon the actual body of the prisoner (strip searches, forced nakedness) — are restrictions supposedly made in the name of safety. But just as Manning has showed no proclivity for self-harm, nor has he been violent in jail, Hashmi, who is currently at the Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado, has no history of violence. In fact his entire association with “terrorism” comes from the fact he let a friend stay in his apartment for a few weeks, someone who it turned out had a suitcase full of ponchos, raincoats and waterproof socks supposedly intended for delivery to an Al Qaeda-linked figure. (More on that below.)

In his first months in New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, following extradition from England, where Hashmi was completing a masters degree in international relations, Farad was treated as an ordinary detainee awaiting trial, with no untoward behaviors or problems.

As Theoharis put it:

In the first months of detention, family members could visit him together and talk about their visits with friends and family. Fahad had a radio and could receive and read newspapers and magazines. He could shower outside of the view of the camera. His lawyer could talk freely with him and with others.

… there had been no complaint about his behavior in his first five months at the correctional center.

But he was not cooperating with American authorities. The U.S. attorney had made it clear that this could all go away if he would. As Fahad explained at his sentencing three years later, “And in all reality, I had nothing to cooperate about.” Much like other forms of torture, his treatment was a coercive punishment for not doing what the government wanted.

Someone who did “cooperate” was his friend, Junaid Babar, the man with the suitcase full of rain gear. Babar, who was, as the UK Guardian reported, an “American jihadist who set up the terrorist training camp where the leader of the 2005 London suicide bombers learned how to manufacture explosives”, was “quietly released” from prison after serving less than five years of his 70-year sentence.

The early release was because Babar agreed to become a government informer — or “Supergrass” as the British media puts it. Just last month, a Guardian investigation revealed that Babar’s release came despite the fact that he “still supported the killing of US soldiers and civilians in ‘occupied’ Muslim countries.”

The pre-sentence report, known as a 5K1, submitted by the US attorney’s office, stated: “Babar has advised that he supports the killing of Americans (both military and civilian) in Muslim countries ‘occupied’ by the United States”….

When asked by the sentencing judge about Babar’s support for violence against US citizens, Brendan McGuire, assistant attorney for the southern New York district, said: “I do believe that that is Mr Babar’s view as of today. [However] I think there is a distinction, and the government draws a distinction between Mr Babar’s views and Mr Babar’s intent on acting on that view.”

And the evidence of such intent? No doubt it is his “cooperation,” which included testifying against Hashmi, as well as meeting with “US government and foreign government figures on nearly 100 occasions.” Hashmi wouldn’t “cooperate”, and now he is buried alive at the Florence Supermax prison, which its former warden told CBS’s 60 Minutes was “pretty close” to “hell.”

The Supermax prisons rely on severe, long-term solitary confinement and environmental control. Hashmi’s extra restrictions via SAMs, even inside the Supermax prison, were renewed by Attorney General Holder last October.

As Jeanne Theoharis wrote:

The use of torture and other human-rights violations in America’s war on terrorism has been framed as a problem occurring largely outside our shores. Our public conversation blames a set of bad guys—the “torture lawyers” John Yoo and Jay Bybee and their patrons, President Bush and Vice President Cheney—who twisted the law to allow “enhanced interrogation” in secret and offshore locations.

But enhanced-interrogation techniques are only one facet of the human-rights devolution in the aftermath of September 11. In a campaign against terrorism that requires evidence of the effectiveness of law enforcement, a record of conviction is paramount. Prosecuting alleged terrorists has significant cachet for politically aspiring U.S. attorneys, not to mention financial imperatives as various government agencies compete for money made available to fight terrorism. Under the cover of law, U.S. attorneys use prolonged solitary confinement and sensory deprivation to help produce convictions. As John McCain, a former POW, wrote, such treatment “crushes the spirit.”

The use of prolonged solitary confinement is increasingly out of step with world opinion and practice, and is deemed torture by international standards. On July 8, 2010, the European Court of Human Rights kept in place an injunction barring the extradition of four terrorism suspects to the United States, based on the inhumane conditions in so-called Supermax prisons, including the use of postconviction SAMs. Evidence of Hashmi’s pretrial treatment formed part of the background for the decision.

The list of injustices perpetrated by the U.S. government grows ever longer. We must ask now that the SAMs on Hashmi, as well as the POI on Bradley Manning, be lifted, or cause shown why they should not. The inhumane isolation regimes in prisons across this country, and perpetrated by the military in its Army Field Manual’s Appendix M on supposed “unprivileged enemy combatants” (as the Obama administration now styles them) must end, as must the Cointelpro-like action of the government, using informers to frame and help imprison individuals only for their leadership or potential leadership.

Hashmi is in prison because he was an articulate spokesperson for civil rights of Muslims, and of political positions the U.S. government does not like. Theoharis notes, “The government was prepared to introduce tapes of his political activities at trial, tapes that indicated considerable surveillance of his activism as a college student, years before Babar’s visit to his apartment.” This kind of treatment is illegal, and meant to enforce political homogeneity and discourage, if not spike, all dissent.

It is a cliché that tyrannies endure because ordinary people don’t speak out. Jeanne Theoharis is asking, along with Educators for Civil Liberties and Theaters Against War, that her article be spread far and wide, as the Hashmi case highlights the abuses of the civilian federal court and prison system. I think that’s a very good idea.

The Hashmi case may be politically inconvenient for some who are promoting civil trials, for instance, as opposed to the military commissions system or closing Guantanamo for supposed more humane incarceration at Supermax facilities in the U.S. But there is really no contradiction here, only consistency in opposing inhumane standards and the injustice of use of secret evidence, coercion, governmental interference and setup via a system of exploitation of prisoners to serve political ends, not justice.

For more information on Syed Fahad Hashmi’s case