On January 7, 2014, the coldest night of the year in New York City, I found warmth in the grand hall of Judson Memorial Church. I joined over two hundred men and women of many faiths to launch No Separate Justice, the first-ever domestic human rights campaign to call for an end to civil and human rights abuses in cases of the “War on Terror” that occur right here in the United States of America.
The timing coincided closely with the 12th anniversary of the opening of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Every person of conscience condemns the prison in Guantanamo, and many believe that “if only those detained at Guantanamo could be transferred to American soil, to be held and tried as civilians, the abuses would end and justice would be done.” (http://no-separate-justice.org/)
However, the launch proved that history shows otherwise. Since 9/11, hundreds of men, almost all Muslim, have been tried as civilians in the USA and subsequently subjected to abuses akin to those at Guantanamo. These abuses include “inhumane conditions of confinement both pre- and post-trial; secret evidence; intrusive surveillance; vague material support charges; FBI-created plots brought into communities through paid informants; and the criminalization of Islamic speech” (http://no-separate-justice.org/).
The No Separate Justice campaign launch highlighted the stories of four young men who have faced such abuses and languish in prison today: Tarek Mehanna, Ehsanul “Shifa” Sadequee, Ahmed Abu-Ali, and Fahad Hashmi. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Educators for Civil Liberties, CUNY School of Law’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) Project, and Amnesty International USA hosted the event.
Liliana Segura, a specialist on the prison industrial complex and a founding partner of the public service journalism venture, First Look moderated the evening together with Dr. Jeanne Theoharis, Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College.
Tamer Mehanna shared the story of his brother, Tarek Mehanna, who is currently imprisoned at the Federal Communications Management Unit in Terre Haute, Indiana. Tarek was convicted under broad allegations of “material support to terrorists” for First amendment protected activities. Tamer shared a human side of the story. He asked audience members to “Think about somebody you love. Think about the last time you hugged or kissed somebody that you loved… Imagine that from this moment on, you will never be able to hug them or kiss them again. From this instant on, you will never see them, except behind a screen, locked in a concrete box.”
Sonali Sadequee shared the story of her brother, Shifa Sadequee, who is also incarcerated at the Federal Communications Management Unit in Terre Haute, IN. Shifa was charged for “material support” and held for three years in solitary confinement, prior to his trial. Sonali explained, “What is material’s support? In my brother’s case, it was that he took Arabic texts, ancient texts … he translated them in English and he shared them with his peers. … the content of some of those articles are now being taught on college campuses.”
Faisal Hashmi talked about his brother, Fahad Hashmi, who is currently being held in solitary confinement at the Federal “Supermax” Prison, ADX-Florence, Colorado. Fahad was accused of providing material support to Al-Qaeda. The materials found were socks and ponchos. Faisal shared a letter from Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. Mendez wrote, “In several cases, I have found the United States has violated its solemn obligation under the convention against torture. One of those cases is the long-term imprisonment of Syed Fahad Hashmi.”
Pardiss Kebriaei, a Senior Staff Attorney at the Center Constitutional Rights representing Hashmi offered encouraging words from her experiences: “I came into this work after so many years of representing men detained at Guantanamo. I want to make connections between the arbitrary punishment and torture and secrecy that I saw at Guantanamo, and the way we were able to build a movement around Guantanamo, and the way we need to build a movement here.”
I told the story of Ahmed Abu-Ali, who is also being held in solitary confinement in ADX Supermax for terrorism related charges. Ahmed’s conviction is based on a coerced confession video that was filmed in Saudi Arabia and secret evidence that is concealed from him, his family, and his attorneys. Ahmed is held under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), a heightened level of isolation on top of solitary confinement. SAMs prevent Ahmed from communicating with anyone outside of immediate family and approved attorneys, and place a gag order on those who are cleared to correspond with him not to share any of those details with anyone. I ended with a poem written by Ahmed’s sister Tasneem, that begins “Don’t wait until after your death to tell your story/ Where will it be told—on your tombstone?”
Tarek Ismail, a fellow at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute tied all of the narratives together, and outlined the common approach of these counterterrorism cases: to assume guilty and make it almost impossible to prove otherwise.
The most common question that audience members asked is “How can we help?” Fahad reminded everyone that “We’re past tense; our cases happened. But there is a whole slew of cases that exist right now.” He encouraged people to “protest these cases by going to these vigils, by attending the courtroom, by giving attention to them in your mosques, in your churches, in your synagogues, in your students associations.”
There is after all hope. In the introduction of the event, Dr. Theoharis reminded us of the legacy of the late Nelson Mandela. She reflected on her days as a student, calling for an end to the apartheid in South Africa, and the day when the world saw Mandela walk free.
While we wait for freedom for all who are wrongly incarcerated, we ought to stay hopeful. In the story of Prophet Yusuf, from the Holy Qur’an, Allah tells us:
“O my sons, go and find out about Joseph and his brother and despair not of relief from Allah. Indeed, no one despairs of relief from Allah except the disbelieving people." [12:87]
As a part of the No Separate Justice campaign, supporters will gather for a vigil outside of the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City, at 6:00 P.M. on the first Monday of every month.