THE VIEW FROM HERE
Daily Gazette (Schenectady)
February 4, 2007
As the Albany Muslim men targeted by the FBI await sentencing, I visited one of them, Yassin Aref, at the Rensselaer County Jail the other day to see how he is preparing himself for the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison and what he is thinking and feeling.
I found him full of life in his own way––talkative, analytical, and thoughtful.
"If they want to put me life in prison, they can do it," he said in his imperfect but rapidly improving English, "but I have one question: Why? I think they know I did nothing in my entire life…I did not participate in any violence, and especially I never did anything against America."
He is a 36-year-old Kurdish refugee from Iraq who was sent to this country seven years ago as part of a United Nations resettlement program. He has a wife and four young children in legal limbo in Albany. He was found guilty of nine counts of supporting terrorism as the result of an elaborate sting operation run by the FBI, and he is scheduled to be sentenced a week from tomorrow in federal court. The government is asking for a sentence of at least 30 years to life, which if he got, he would probably have to spend at a "supermax" prison in the Midwest.
Is he scared?
No, he said, "I’m not scared any more. I’ll take it, even the death penalty...I am 100 percent sure, the judge, the jury, the FBI, they know I am innocent. They saw everything, they knew everything. I am a victim for their own policy, that’s all, to show people they are fighting terrorists."
An assessment, by the way, that I basically agree with. The FBI needed to show it was on top of the terrorism threat, and as the bearded imam of a local mosque, he was a convenient showpiece, even though there was nothing radical about him, much less terroristic.
What would be fair?
"If they want to be fair they must apologize to my children and let me go back to my family, but if they want to hang me, I’ll take it proudly," he said as we sat in a small conference room at the jail talking over a metal table.
He does not much focus on himself and the wreck that his life has become in his adopted country. "I’m one person," he said. "Maybe 700,000 died in Iraq. Most saw no trial, no court."
"If not for wife and children," he said, "I have no problem. I sit and read a book. This is punishment for them. Their life has been destroyed more than my life."
Sitting and reading a book is something he has plenty of time for. Since his bail was revoked in September 2005 he has been in so-called protective custody, meaning solitary confinement, locked into his one-man cell 23 hours a day, allowed out only for a daily shower and a visit to a recreation yard, which, until his co-defendant joined him in October 2006, was a solo visit. Plus he gets an hour a week of religion class and an hour a week of group prayer, which, however, he is not allowed to lead.
He is behind a steel door, with a small window onto the cellblock at eye level and a small grate at knee level. He is in there with a bunk, a toilet, a sink, a locker and a desk. "I keep myself busy with mainly three things," he told me. "Prayer and holy book; books and reading; and listening to news."
He is allowed to have a small radio with earphones, and he listens a lot to National Public Radio, and especially to a program by Amy Goodman, "Democracy Now." He wants to tell Amy Goodman, "If not your program and my holy book, I lost my mind."
And, oh yes, "I sing a lot, and I sleep too. I cry sometimes, too."
The songs are his own compositions, in Kurdish, 30 of them so far. And of course the tears are his own.
He has also busied himself writing his life story, some of which I have read, including the parts about his childhood in a hard-scrabble village of the mountains of northern Iraq where food was so scarce that he remembers his father often saying, when asked what he would like to eat, that he would take anything softer than stones.
He reminded me of that when I asked him how the food was in jail. "I have no complaint about the food," he said. "In Iraq many days we could not even get bread to eat. I saw people eat leaves of tree"––during Saddam Hussein’s war of extermination against the Kurds. "This helps me now enjoy the food, whatever it is."
With only another week left before he learns his fate, he is not without hope. "When the U.N. sent me to this country, I hope the judge proves they did not send me to the wrong country," he said, pointing up one of the many ironies of this case––that he did not choose to come here. When he was going to be relocated from Syria, where he had sought refuge with his new wife from the turmoil in his homeland, his preference was for Europe, where there were more Kurds and he figured he would have an easier time fitting in.
He got shipped here willy-nilly, and right away did what so many new immigrants do, get a low-level job and start learning English. He worked as a janitor at Albany Medical Center, studied hard and soon became the prayer leader, or imam, at a storefront mosque on Central Avenue.
Then 9/11 happened, and one of the ways the world changed was the FBI got a new mandate: Find terrorists before they can strike again.
Yassin Aref was not a terrorist or anything close to a terrorist, nor was Mohammed Hossain, from Bangladesh, running a pizza shop. But they were bearded Muslim men, the FBI had Yassin’s name from someone’s address book in Iraq, which they took as ominous, and the FBI went after the two of them, sending a Pakistani snitch to try to dupe them into exchanging cash for checks in such a way that it could be construed as supporting an attack on the Pakistani consulate in New York, something there is no evidence that either man had ever dreamed of.
It worked, or at least it worked to the extent that the government was able to sell it to a jury, and now here they are, both officially guilty of crimes that could put them away for the rest of their lives, and both waiting for the final word from the judge.
I wish I could do something about all of this.
In case you’re wondering why I interviewed only Yassin Aref and not his co-defendant, Mohammed Hossain, the answer is that Yassin’s lawyer gave permission for an interview, which the jail requires, and Hossain’s lawyer did not. But you should not read anything into that.
Lawyers generally don’t want their clients to talk to the press, lest they say something damaging, and in this case, one lawyer made one call, and the other lawyer made another, that’s all. I wanted to talk to both of them, and I wish them both well, equally.
Daily Gazette, Thursday October 12, 2006
Verdict is in, but who is really guilty?
I hang my head in shame.
Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, two local Muslim men who were minding their own business until the FBI came into their lives, have been convicted of supporting terrorism, of all things.
Convicted by a jury of my peers. Not necessarily their peers, but my peers, meaning ordinary middle-class people from upstate New York, who sat patiently for 12 days and listened to evidence that in my opinion was an embarrassment to our country, or should have been an embarrassment to our country, and then sat for another 3 1/2 days and discussed that evidence before arriving at their verdict.
Guilty of conspiring to do something that the two probably did not understand, that in any event they never dreamed of doing until an FBI undercover operative tricked them into it (an exchange of checks for cash) and that they were so sure was OK they insisted on putting it in writing.
They were even found guilty of providing support to a terrorist organization fighting in Kashmir that one of them kept telling the FBI's snitch, who was secretly recording everything, that he didn't know anything about and that the other one thought was a musical group.
Such is the fear of Muslim terrorism, I guess. Such is the irrationality that has seized us since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Such is the determination not to take any chances.
That we expend God knows what resources - in FBI agents, translators, hidden recorders, missile experts - to play what amounts to an elaborate prank on two unsuspecting Muslim men just to see if they will fall for it, which they only partially did.
The bizarre thing is that the two, far from being terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, are not even radicals within the Islamic universe. They are altogether moderate. In 50 hours of secretly taped conversation that the FBI produced for our delectation (and we don't know how many more hours that didn't mate the cut), not once did they advocate violence, not once did they express admiration or support for al-Qaida.
On the contrary, one of them counseled the FBI's snitch, a Pakistani con-man, to stay away from the people with whom he was supposedly dealing "ammunitions," including a shoulder-fired missile, which was an FBI prop deployed in this prank. He argued that Islam would spread by Muslims doing good.
The other urged support for refugee women and children in Kashmir, if the snitch wanted to help Kashmir, and in an old diary that the FBI confiscated and translated he supported parliamentary government as against Islamic extremism.
And yet a jury convicted them. Of course I wanted to talk to the jurors after they were discharged, to ask them what went through their heads, and I pursued them out through the parking garage next to the courthouse, down on Broadway in Albany, for that purpose, but they wouldn't talk. They got in their cars and drove off, so I got no satisfaction in that department.
But I will say this: Our president is very free in his use of the word "evil" to describe the forces that threaten the United States, and I don't disagree with him on that, but what would you call a three-year effort by our own government to dupe two humble law-abiding immigrants and devastate their families, if not evil?
Yassin Aref, a Kurdish refugee from Iraq, has a wife and four children, ranging in age from 11 down to just under a year, all of them dependent on him for support.
Mohammed Hossain, an American citizen originally from Bangladesh, has a wife and six children, ranging in age from 13 also down to just under a year, and all of them likewise dependent on him and on his hole-in-the-wall pizza shop.
Neither of the men, I repeat, was doing anything whatsoever to threaten this country or to support other who might threaten this country.
But the FBI tricked them, a jury bought the trick, and they now face some 20 years of incarceration each. And not in the county jail but most likely in a maximum-security federal prison in Illinois or Colorado, as supporters of terrorism.
What do you think will become of their wives and children? How will they support themselves? How will they live? Some of the children are quite Americanized, I understand, but the wives are not. Not at all.
Think about it. Think about yourself in that position. Living in a foreign land, trying to function in a foreign language, facing what they face.
I have spent a little time with the two men, and they both strike me as decent - Aref religious, thoughtful and scholarly, Hossain, self-effacing, unsophisticated, hard-working.
They came to this country full of hopes, and they broke no laws until the FBI very elaborately led them to do so, if you think they broke laws at all, which I really don't.
So if we're going to talk about evil, is it evil what the FBI did to these men and their families? Is it evil what the U.S. attorney's office did in prosecuting the case? I don't have to tell you what I think. If evil means anything, it has to mean smashing people's lives for no legitimate reason.
I would like to say something to them, if by chance they get to read this in their isolation cells in the Rensselaer County Jail, where they await sentencing.
Yassin and Mohammed: I hope you have the strength to endure what you now face. I suspect you do, that you will find the strength in your religious faith, a faith that I do not share, but that is obviously a large part of your lives.
The time may come when Congress will pass a resolution apologizing to you and others like you who got swept up in the fear that followed 9/11, just as it passed a resolution apologizing to the Japanese-Americans who got swept up in the fear that followed Pearl Harbor, but that will probably come too late to do you any practical good. Your lives will have inched away by then, and your children will be long grown.
I hope they grow up able not to hate America, just as I hope you too are able not to hate America.
It is just your great misfortune that you were who you were at this time and in this place, that you were brown-skinned, bearded Muslim men speaking in foreign accents, in Albany, after the attacks of 9/11. The local FBI office needed to prove itself in the new War on Terror, and you were it. As simple as that.
I am very sorry for you and your families, and as presumptuous as it may be, I apologize to you on behalf of my country.
Carl Strock The View From Here
Published in the Schenectady Gazette (Tuesday, November 7, 2006)
Following the convictions last month of the two Albany Muslims, Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain, on charges of money-laundering in support of terrorism - convictions that in my opinion were an insult to justice - a number of you wrote or called to ask how you could help the families of the two, having in mind that Aref has a wife and four young children and Hossain a wife and six young children.
I can now report that a fund has been established for that purpose, thanks to the efforts of some 50 people who got together at the Friends Meeting House on Madison Avenue in Albany a couple of weeks ago. If you wish to contribute you can make a check payable to the Aref-Hossain Family Fund and send it to Steven Downs, 26 Dinmore Road, Selkirk, NY 12158.
Downs is former counsel to the Commission on Judicial Conduct who worked as a volunteer on the criminal case. The money will be deposited in a dedicated account at Trustco Bank.
I am assured there are no expenses associated with the fund and that all the money will go to the families.
Mohammed Hossain owned and operated the Little Italy pizza shop on Central Avenue, and his family still has that, though the federal government took the deeds to two dumpy rental properties that he also owned.
Yassin Aref was the prayer leader, or imam, at a storefront mosque a few blocks away on Central Avenue, which was his only source of income. Before that, having arrived in this country as a refugee, he worked as a janitor at Albany Medical Center. Efforts are under way to try to find lodging for his family.
Aref is Kurdish, from Iraq, and had refugee status in the United States, along with his wife. Three of their children were born in Syria, and the youngest was born here.
Aref is 37 years old, Hossain is 51. They face decades in prison when they are sentenced in February, though I have conflicting information as to the exact sentencing guidelines.
The people who established the support fund - Quakers, Unitarians and others who count themselves as progressives - also formed a group called the Muslim Defense Committee to work on building long-term relations between the Masjid As-Salam mosque and the surrounding non-Muslim community. "The big thing we're trying to do is organize events on a regular basis to bring the larger community in to meet and get to know the families at the mosque, so the mystique is kind of eradicated," said Cathy Callan, one of the people involved in the effort. "These are our neighbors."
You can contact the committee at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. They have also started a Website: nepajac.org/aref&hossain.htm.
I do take heart from this compassionate coming-together of ordinary people in Albany, though to my mind there remains a huge imbalance between the good that can be done by 50 or even 100 concerned citizens and the evil that was perpetrated by our government in tricking two otherwise law-abiding men into a deal that could be construed as supporting terrorism, just as there remains a huge imbalance between the $1,000 or so that has so far been raised and the need. How far can $1,000 go in getting two immigrant families redirected without their husbands and fathers?
I should mention, by the way, that I received a letter from Aref, the more intellectual of the two victims, in response to a column I wrote in which I said I hung my head in shame, apologized on behalf of my country, wished the two of them luck, and mentioned in passing that I did not share their faith. The letter was written from the Rensselaer County Jail, where the two men are kept in isolation while they await sentencing.
I quote exactly, so please allow for Aref's imperfect English, which is his third language: "You wrote the faith you are not sharing it with me but you are! Speaking the truth and supporting it. Care about your family and had mercy on weak, sick and children. Hate unjust and tricky. Believe me that exactly my faith so I am going to share this faith with you. Only I will believe in God to it!"
That's the kind of guy he is. and that's the kind of guy our government is going to put in prison for much of the rest of his life, leaving his family in the lurch.
As opposed to say, Shahed Hussain, known as Malik, the Pakistini hustler who was running a scam at the Department of Motor Vehicles where he had a contract to do translating and instead was actually taking drivers-license exams for people, so they could pass them, and charging up to $1,000 for his crooked services.
He's the character the FBI recruited to deceive Aref and Hossain into exchanging cash for checks, by playing to their religion and coming onto them as a brother, and who for his duplicitous services won a recommendation from the U.S. attorney's office that he be allowed to stay in this country without going to jail.
Thanks a lot, U.S. attorney's office, I want to say. Thanks a lot, FBI. You did a swell job of making the United States a better, safer country.
Meanwhile, thanks sincerely to the people who came together to form the Muslim Defense Committee and establish the Aref-Hossain Family Support Fund. Keep your head high," Aref urged me in his letter, and I urge you the same.