Jackson seeks justice for jailed imam

GUILDERLAND — It has been seven years since Albany resident Yassin M. Aref, an imam from Albany, was convicted of terrorism and sentenced to 15 years in a Communication Management Unit in a federal prison in Indiana.

Lynne Jackson, also an Albany resident, and one of the founding members of Save the Pine Bush, has strayed from her typical environmental activism and taken a special interest in Aref’s case. She has organized the “Journey for Justice,” in which she will walk 133 miles, over 10 days, from Albany to Binghamton, to publicize his new appeal. The walkers will pass through Guilderland on Sunday, July 14.

Jackson’s interest in Aref’s situation grew from her involvement with Save the Pine Bush. Steve Downs, the pro bono attorney who works for Save the Pine Bush, was helping Aref translate his memoirs while he was being detained in Albany after his arrest. Downs made international headlines when he wore a T-shirt with a peace slogan at Crossgates Mall, before the start of the war in Iraq, and was arrested.

Downs often spoke of the Aref case with Jackson, and she became intrigued.

“I don’t work on prison issues; I’m an environmentalist. But it was so clear to me that it was a complete setup and injustice has happened,” said Jackson. “I didn’t want to get overly involved, but I decided to write letters to Aref.”

Aref, originally from Iraq, was in the United States as a United Nations refugee, and he was the imam at the Masjid As Salam Mosque.

View from Aref’s supporters

Jackson and Aref’s attorney, Kathy Manley, describe the story of his arrest this way:

The FBI launched a counter-terrorism sting operation in 2004, and targeted Aref, after having found his name, address, and phone number in a notebook in a bombed-out Iraqi encampment in 2003.

FBI agents had a Pakistani informant, whom they called Malik, approach a member of Aref’s mosque, Mohammed Hossain, a pizza shop owner, and offer him a loan of $50,000. Malik told Hossain that the money he would loan him had come from buying a Chinese missile, which was going to be sold to a group called Jaish-e-Mohammed, to be used to assassinate the Pakistani Ambassador in New York City.

It is obligatory for Muslims to have loans witnessed, and the men asked Aref to be that witness. Aref agreed to witness the loan, and, as a result, both he and Hossain were arrested, and charged with conspiring to aid a terrorist group and provide support for a weapon of mass destruction, as well as money laundering.

Manley said the defense argued that Aref was entrapped, and that he did not realize any laws were being broken. The defense filed an appeal, in 2008, stating that there was insufficient evidence, but the original convictions were upheld. The defense also submitted a sentencing memorandum, documenting Aref’s support from the community, as well as his background.

Manley told The Enterprise this week, that, since the last appeal, new evidence has come to light, and the defense will be filing a 2255 motion, which asks to have a conviction thrown out, or set aside.

“It is what you file when your direct appeal has been denied,” said Manley.

Some of the evidence that the defense now has was hidden under the Classified Evidence Procedures Act, which the federal government enacted, Manley said.

In 2011, Aref made a Freedom of Information Act request, and the documents that had been deemed classified were provided to him.

Included in the documents was information that showed that the notebook page the FBI had found with Aref’s name on it was thought to have the Arabic word for “commander” written on it, when, actually, they had misinterpreted it, and it was instead a Kurdish word meaning “brother,” a term of respect, Manley said.

There was also some implication that the FBI may have confused Aref with a different man, with a similar name, a man who she said was actually killed in Gaza in 2010. Part of the title on the file listed the name of the other man.

Lastly, said Manley, the defense discovered that the informant, Malik, was a Pakistani man facing conviction of other crimes, and was working for the FBI as part of a plea bargain. Documents showed Malik had committed perjury in a number of other trials, and Manley said the defense would use that information to attempt to show that, as an informant, he was not reliable.

Walk for a cause

Jackson, and her supporters, will carry a petition, with over 1,000 signatures, to the home court of the prosecutor, Thomas McAvoy, the judge who heard the original case in Binghamton, in the United States District Court of the Northern District of New York, and who would hear the appeal. The petition, which has been circulated online, asks McAvoy — who was also the trial judge — to give the appeal serious consideration.

“I want the judge to know that people in Albany care so much about Aref that we are willing to walk from Albany to Binghamton to deliver the papers,” Jackson said.

The “Journey for Justice” walk will depart from the Masjid As-Salam mosque in Albany on July 12, at 10 a.m. and head toward Western Avenue. It will pass through Guilderland, near Route 20 and Dunnsville Road, and on to Quaker Street, on Sunday, July 14.

Anyone, said Jackson, is welcome to come and join her or support her during any part of the walk. She expects to arrive at the court in Binghamton at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, July 23.

“People in this community have always cared about Aref, and felt that this case was a travesty of justice,” said Manley. “His case hasn’t been forgotten, and has become widely known even outside the community; judges pay attention to the outside world, and I think sometimes displays like this have an effect.”

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