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 Albany, New York to protest the FBI's tricking Yassim Aref and Mohammed Hossain into doing something that could look as if it was illegal and then putting them in jail for 15 years. The protesters marched from downtown Albany to a rally at the Masjid As-Salam Mosque, where both men used to worship. The march and rally was sponsored by the Muslim Solidarity Committee and a number of other local peace and justice groups, including my own, Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace. The Troy Record article on the march and rally can be found at the link below:

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 Albany. We decided to go to the mosque that had been attacked to hear their side of the story. When we arrived, we found a wall of cameras and press from everywhere in the country taking pictures of the inner-city, store-front mosque. The door was locked, but we noticed that there was a grocery store next to the mosque in which there were several men wearing Muslim garb. We went in and found that one of the men, named Faisal, was the son of the president of the mosque. We talked a little about what had happened, and it became clear to me that the arrested men were victims, not criminals, and needed support, especially from the non-Muslim community. I exchanged contact information with Faisal. A few weeks later, he and a couple of others from the mosque joined a support meeting at the Women’s Building on Central Avenue that had been called by Erin O’Brien and me. At the meeting, Faisal welcomed our support, but he was not sure about conducting a public campaign, so we agreed to stay in contact and to continue to discuss what we could do.

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 New York state prison system, eventually becoming the head of all chaplains in the state prisons. He was one of the first two Muslim chaplains in the US prisons; he founded the National Association of Muslim Chaplains and became its president. After the attacks on 9/11, the U.S. government sought to foster an atmosphere of fear in this country as a way of mobilizing people for war. The targets of their fear campaign were Arabs and Muslims in this country and around the world, who were branded as terrorists or supporters of terrorism. President Bush claimed that the US was attacked because these people hated our freedom and democracy. Imam Umar explained that this was not true, that people throughout the world all love freedom and democracy but that many people, especially in the third world, have legitimate grievances against the United States. Unless these were seriously addressed, he believed, we could never hope to stop terrorism.

This kind of talk coming from a Black man and a Muslim could not be tolerated during the US build up for war, so Imam Umar was attacked by the government and the news media. They characterized him as promoting terrorism within the Muslim prison population. Articles attacking him appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and other news media. New York Governor Pataki and Senator Schumer spoke out against him. Pataki denied him access to the New York State prisons, and Schumer called for the firing of all Muslim chaplains in the New York state prison system.

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 New York. This was a crime, according to a law that Imam Umar wasn't aware of, which didn't allow him to own guns because he'd been arrested on a felony charge as a teenager over 38 years earlier. The government prosecuted him on this charge and tried to get him put in jail for 10 years.

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 Manhattan. The government tried to get Imam Umar to take a plea deal requiring him not to appeal his conviction and to serve a little over a year and a half in prison. Umar refused the plea deal, and he went to trial, where he admitted owning the rifle and shotgun. BNP then organized a campaign to send letters to the judge asking for leniency in his sentencing. Letters came from neighbors, teachers, professors, doctors, and others representing a broad cross section of the population in the Bethlehem and Albany communities.

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 Washington Avenue in Albany, to form a defense committee for Aref and Hossain. About 50 people attended this meeting, including five or so from the mosque. Cathy Callan and May Safar took the leadership of the organization and were essential in its initial development. Cathy had experience as a member of the Imam Umar defense committee, which had been organized earlier by Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, and the Muslim Solidarity Committee took a similar open and public posture. We organized petitions, rallies, and public meetings. We reached out to the media, and as the trial started, we organized vigils outside of the court house and packed the court room with supporters.

In an Alice in Wonderland trial where everything was upside down and inside out, Aref and Hossain were convicted. The trial was tainted by secret evidence, “experts” with no knowledge of the field they were supposedly expert in, mistranslations, a government witness who was also a criminal, and a judge who instructed the jury that they could not hear all the evidence because it was classified, although he assured them that the unseen evidence was good. Above all, there had been no crime.

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 Iraq and Afghanistan and willingly sign away our civil liberties here at home. They used a tactic described as “pre-emptive prosecution," which has as much validity as the “pre-emptive wars” that the U.S. has been fighting, neither of which make the people of the United States any more safe or secure--in fact, quite the opposite.

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 New York and throughout the country. As a result, on the fourth anniversary of the arrest of Aref and Hossain, the Muslim Solidarity Committee held a conference with others working on similar cases. There, the Muslim Innocence Project, which became Project Salam (, a web site that seeks to collect Muslims throughout the country who also have been wrongly prosecuted, was formed. We hope to use this project as a way to further expose the government's crimes.

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 Newburgh, New York that the FBI and Malik tricked, and another group from Philadelphia known as the Ft. Dix Five. Family members and supporters of these groups joined our march and rally in Albany. While at the rally at the mosque, I spoke to one of the supporters from Philadelphia. He was trying to figure how the Muslim Solidarity Committee had accomplished so much. He mentioned that in Philadelphia, the mosques would not touch the case of the Fort Dix Five and would never have held a rally for the wrongly prosecuted Muslims. He was very impressed that non-Muslims and Muslims were working together and marching together for justice.

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.

Going Public

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.

Committed people

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.