The road to justice is paved with truth
First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
— Martin Niemöller
In 2006, federal Judge Thomas J. McAvoy told a jury hearing a case against Yassin Aref, an imam from Albany, “The FBI had certain suspicions, good and valid suspicions for looking into Mr. Aref, but why they did that is not to be any concern of yours.”
The jury found Aref guilty of 10 of 30 counts, including money laundering and supporting a known terrorist organization.
Now, as you read this, a small band of Aref supporters is making its way by foot from Albany to Binghamton, where Judge McAvoy sits, carrying a petition, asking him to consider Aref’s motion to re-open the case or dismiss the terrorism charges against him.
We hope the judge hears their pleas.
Aref had filed a Freedom of Information Act request and obtained a document, heavily redacted, that shows he was misidentified as a Pakistani Al Qaeda agent. “We believe the government supplied this erroneous (and previously classified) information to both the trial and appeal courts, or at least told them falsely that he was involved with Al Qaeda…,” the motion says. “It was probably the true impetus for the trial judge’s instruction to the jury in 2006 that there were ‘good and valid’ reasons to target Aref.”
The motion makes several other points, including an assertion that Aref is actually innocent and concludes, “Surely there is no security interest involved in targeting and convicting the wrong person.”
None of us, as Americans, are safer if a person is wrongfully jailed. Rather, such a miscarriage of justice undermines the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness we all hold dear.
As recent revelations about the National Security Administration and its covert operations continue to reverberate, we should all take heed.
If innocent, Aref has already served too many years of his 15-year sentence, a number of them in the severe confines of the Communication Management Unit in Terre Haut, Ind., known as Little Gitmo. With mostly Muslim prisoners, the CMUs strictly limit family visits and contact with the outside world, including letters and phone calls, set at just a fraction of those allowed for the general prison population.
Aref wrote from the CMU to Daniel VanRiper, the husband of Albany activist Lynn Jackson, who is spearheading the petitioners’ walk to Binghamton, which she calls the Journey for Justice.
“As a Kurd, born and raised in Iraq,” Aref wrote, “I really understood what it was to be a second-class citizen, and I knew what discrimination meant.” Driven from Iraq, Aref finished college in Syria, where he had three children.
When, in 1999, his name was approved for residency in the United States, he wrote from jail, “I thought I was going to get my freedom back. My children would learn what it was to have a normal life.” He realized it would take time to learn the language, get a good job, and become a citizen.
“Before any of that happened, there was 9-11, which really changed things,” Aref wrote. “There was discrimination, racism, and accusing the foreigner.”
He does not complain from jail about the leaking roof, tiny cell, intense heat, or food past its stamped date.
“I grew up in a poor family in a very poor area in a real difficult time,” he writes. “My illiterate father taught me to never complain about the food, to eat whatever you get and thank God for providing it.”
Although the lack of emergency medical attention at the CMU is troubling — with a death by heart attack and a near-death of a diabetic, he reports — what bothers Aref the most is the lack of contact with his family. “All our visits, even with family, must be through glass,” he writes, noting that a 900-mile journey for his penniless family that must live on charity is hard enough.
Stating, “Family is the cornerstone of the community,” Aref writes, “Stopping me from hugging my baby has nothing to do with national security.”
Aref also writes of himself and his fellow prisoners, “The government has been trying to put pressure on us and goad us into acting violently so that they will be able to justify their claim that we are dangerous. But the government has failed,” he writes, claiming guards say the unit is the most peaceful they have seen.
Aref gave this example, among many: “We all know that, due to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, there is daily fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, and between Arabs and Kurds. So the government put one Iraqi Shiite with one Sunni and one Kurd (me). So every day, when we hear the news reports, they hope we get mad and fight each other. But we are very close friends and joke together.”
Still, the fate of his family gnaws at him. “How can I find out if my family is all right? I have not had contact with them in two years! I left my sick wife and four young children. I left them with nothing. How will they survive?…They are not citizens of any country in this world…What will happen if they are deported? Where can they go?”
Aref has survived, he writes, through his faith in God. “Most people here have similar and even worse problems than me,” Aref writes towards the end of his long letter. “If not for our faith in God, we could never survive this. But still we are all living in peace and trying to smile and respect even the non-Muslims among us. What kind of danger do we pose and what kind of terrorists are we?”
We believe it is possible at Aref’s trial that the judge and the jury were caught in the web of an FBI mistake. Aref, as an imam, following Muslim custom, witnessed a loan for a member of his congregation, as he had many, many times before. It was not disclosed at trial that the FBI’s key witness, who set up the sting, was facing conviction of other crimes and working as part of a plea bargain.
Nor did the government disclose the existence of an NSA recording of the 2004 meeting between Aref and Mohammed Hossain, a pizza-store owner whose loan Aref was witnessing. That recording, Aref’s motion contends “would have shown conclusively that Aref was never told the meaning of the code word for ‘missile’ that day, thus directly affecting Aref’s conviction.”
If Aref had been part of a terrorist plot, of course he deserves to be punished. But what if he is innocent?
He deserves a fair trial that allows for formerly withheld information to be introduced. If he is found guilty, so be it. There is no harm done; he will continue to serve his sentence and we can rest easy he was given a fair hearing.
If Aref is found innocent, he will never get those lost years back but he will have a chance to clear his name, provide for his family, and build a future.
We, as Americans, need to stand up for those whose rights may have been trampled. We’ll be the stronger for it.
“We look and wait for the American people to wake up and look at what their government is doing,” Aref wrote from jail. “We came here legally, mainly as refugees, in order to live free.”
He concludes with these questions:
“Is it true that all humans are equal?
“Is it true that everyone is free to choose his faith?
“Are human rights really protected by law?”
We’d like to answer those questions with a resounding yes.
“We hear this but we would like to see it,” writes Aref.
So would we.
— Melissa Hale-Spencer