My Brother Faces A Lifetime Of Solitary Confinement
On A Spurious Terror Conviction
By Mariam Abu-Ali
13 May, 2010
A version of this piece first appeared in The Hoya, Georgetown University’s newspaper.
My brother, Ahmed Abu Ali, has spent the past five years in solitary confinement, under 23-hour lockdown, in a 7×12 cell. He has one recreational hour in which he must get strip-searched if he wishes to leave his cell. He gets one unscheduled telephone call a month to his family, and receives the newspaper by the time news becomes history. If I send him a letter wishing him a happy birthday, he gets it 60 days later. When I visit him, once a year, I speak to him from behind a glass window. He is literally in a dungeon, over 20 meters beneath the ground.
Ahmed is not in a foreign prison, nor is he in Guantánamo; he is in a super maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado.
Ahmed was not convicted of an act of violence nor was he charged with one. In 2003, Ahmed, a sociable 22-year-old, was studying abroad when he was detained in Medina, Saudi Arabia at the behest of the U.S government. My family, in tandem with several human rights organizations, filed a habeas petition demanding his return to the U.S., and the judge ruled in our favor.
After being held for nearly two years in Saudi Arabia without any charges or access to an attorney, Ahmed was transferred to U.S. custody. The U.S. government sought to avoid public embarrassment by charging him with nine counts of terrorism related conspiracy. The only evidence presented was a confession tape obtained under torture in Saudi Arabia, a country with documented prisoner abuse, as reported by the State Department. Additionally, the judge suppressed the defense’s evidence of torture during the trial. During a pretrial hearing, Ahmed offered to show the scars on his back in the U.S. courtroom. The judge refused his request, but assured him he would not be mistreated in the United States.
Mistreatment would be an understatement, given the draconian conditions under which he is held. Ahmed was initially sentenced to 30 years, but the prosecution was not satisfied. They appealed to increase his sentence. Despite the fact that the so-called conspiracies, according to the judge, “did not result in a single actual victim,” he is now serving a life sentence in solitary confinement under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs).
Created in 1996, SAMs were imposed for a maximum of four months when a prisoner was deemed violent. Now, SAMs can be designated by the Attorney General for up to a year, and renewed continually thereafter resulting in perpetual isolation, a form of torture under international law. The SAMs limit certain “privileges,” including, but not limited to, correspondence, visits, media interviews and telephone use. SAMs also restrict conversations between inmates and their lawyers by allowing them to be monitored by prison officials, violating attorney-client privilege and depriving inmates of their right to effective counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. Ahmed was under SAMs even before his trial began. Imposing SAMs pre-trial cast a shadow of suspicion on a defendant, rendering him guilty until proven innocent.
Unfortunately, my brother’s case is not an anomaly. Civil rights violations are an integral part of the “war on terror” and have become entrenched in the U.S. court system and in prison policy.
Fahad Hashmi is a young student from New York, who received his B.A from Brooklyn College and his master’s from London Metropolitan University. In 2006, he was arrested at an airport in the United Kingdom and held in England’s notorious Belmarsh prison for 11 months. Like Ahmed, Fahad was charged with conspiracy on the basis of flimsy evidence. While in the UK, he allowed an acquaintance to stay at his apartment for two weeks. The government alleges that this acquaintance had socks, raincoats and ponchos in his luggage during his stay that would later get delivered to Al-Qaeda. The government’s case rested on secret evidence and on the testimony of an acquaintance who then became an informant to get a reduction on his own prison sentence.
Fahad was extradited back to New York, where was held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center without a trial under SAMs for the past three years. Under 24-hour electronic surveillance, he is required to shower and relieve himself in view of a camera. Furthermore, his limited family visits have been suspended for the past five months.
Extreme sensory deprivation often leads to hunger strikes and results in the deterioration of prisoners’ physical and mental health. Medical and scholarly research has shown that such sensory deprivation results in depression, lethargy and psychosis in otherwise healthy prisoners. After studying inmates in solitary confinement, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, noted that they “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind — to organize their own lives around activity and purpose … In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,” lapsing into catatonic states.
Senator John McCain, who spent more than two years in isolation while detained in Vietnam, has said that solitary confinement “crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” Last year, Ahmed’s conditions were so unbearable, he went on a hunger strike for two months, losing 50 pounds.
Fahad’s health has degraded immensely, a fact that would have compromised his ability to participate in his defense during his trial, which was scheduled to begin on April 28. Instead, Fahad reached a plea bargain on the eve of his trial. In addition to facing the prospect of a 70-year prison sentence, the court granted the government’s request for an anonymous jury with extra protection. The Center for Constitutional Rights called it “a clear attempt to influence the jury by creating a sense of fear for their safety and to paint Mr. Hashmi as already guilty.” Fahad’s plea should not be presumed as an admission of guilt; the biased circumstances led him to accept a chance for a lesser charge.
Ahmed’s or Fahad’s innocence is not the point, although I believe both are guilt-free. Rather, I write because regardless of their innocence or guilt, it is their right to be treated humanely. If we believe in the inherent dignity of each human being, then we should be outraged by these abuses. Unfortunately, abuse here in the United States rarely receives media attention. President Obama promised to close down Guantánamo; let us demand that he closes down the Guantánamo-style prisons on U.S. soil, too. Anyone with a true understanding of American values ought to demand an immediate end to these cruel and unusual punishments.
Mariam Abu-Ali is a senior at Georgetown University.