Yassin Aref remembers the first time he was allowed to have physical contact with his family as a federal prisoner.
His youngest daughter Dilnia, born while he was in jail awaiting trial, “was a little shy at first, then started to push her brothers away so she can hug me and sit on my lap.”
His children began competing with each other, seeing who could “put an arm around my neck for a longer time,” Aref wrote in a lengthy email that reflected his improving but still-far-from perfect English. “Then I felt sorry for them and started thinking how those years of my isolation were difficult for them.”
Since his conviction in 2006 on terrorism-related charges, Aref has lived in a succession of prisons and jails.
Though he was transferred to a low security federal prison in Allenwood, Pa., last year, Aref spent about four years in a highly restrictive, isolated prison unit known as a communication management unit. He is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the legality of the CMUs and maintains that he did nothing wrong and should never have been arrested, tried or sent to prison.
Aref, a Kurdish refugee who came to Albany in 1999, and Mohammed Hossain, a local pizza shop owner, were arrested in a dramatic FBI sting in 2004, convicted two years later and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Prior to his arrest, Aref served as the imam at Masjid As-Salam, a storefront mosque on Albany’s Central Avenue.
The case remains controversial today for many reasons, including the FBI’s use of an undercover informant with a criminal background, the decision to focus so much energy on two men with clean records and the terrorist plot itself, which was a fictional scenario created by the agency. In the FBI’s sting, the informant offered Hossain the opportunity to make some money by laundering the proceeds from the sale of a missile to a terrorist group; Aref entered the picture months later, when he agreed to witness the transaction.
“They targeted [Aref] for some reason, and we’ve never known exactly why,” said Kathy Manley, Aref’s longtime attorney, who currently assists him pro bono.
The families of both men remain in Albany, and a grass roots network of local supporters helps them make ends meet. These supporters have also continued to be outspoken critics of the government’s decision to target and prosecute the men, saying neither Hossain nor Aref would have gotten into trouble if the informant hadn’t entered their lives.
They have formed a group, called Project SALAM, that aims to bring wider attention to the government’s prosecution of Muslims since 9/11. The Aref/Hossain case, they say, opened their eyes to the mistreatment of Muslims all over the country.
The government has a much different perspective.
Deputy Criminal Chief William Pericak, who prosecuted Aref and Hossain on behalf of the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York, has defended the government’s actions for years and continued to do so last week. He said Aref’s name and phone number were found at three different Iraqi locations associated with the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam and that, based on this connection, “it would have been criminal” not to investigate him.
Aref has always said he is not a terrorist and was never a member of a terrorist group.
According to friends, Aref and Hossain have reacted very differently to their imprisonment.
Aref has written about his experiences, even publishing a memoir, “Son of Mountains,” that he wrote while awaiting trial in the Rensselaer County jail. He is willing to share his story with just about anyone. Hossain, on the other hand, has withdrawn, and his contact with supporters in the Capital Region is minimal.
“The two men are very different,” said Jeanne Finley, one of Project SALAM’s coordinators. “Yassin has always been out there. He will talk to anyone. ... Mohammed doesn’t want communication. Yassin welcomes it.”
Aref has four children, who are now 16, 15, 12 and 6; Hossain, who is currently housed in a medium security federal prison in Minersville, Pa., has six children. His wife continued to run his pizza shop until recently; today the site is home to a liquor store.
“It has not been easy for these families,” Finley said. “They are not harassed, but to live in the community that prosecuted their husbands is a challenge. They try to keep as low a profile as possible.”
Aref was acquitted of 20 of the 30 counts against him, but found guilty of the indictment’s more serious charges, including money laundering, material support for terrorists and making false statements. Hossain was convicted of all 27 charges brought against him.
Now 41, Aref looks noticeably older than he did at the time of his arrest, and in an email he observed that “I look like 52 now!” In photographs taken with his family in 2011, after he was transferred to the low security prison, his hair and beard are flecked with gray, and he is wearing a plain brown prison suit.
Shortly after his conviction, Aref was sent to the communication management unit at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., and was transferred to the CMU at the federal prison in Marion, Ill., in 2009. He remained in Marion until his transfer last year to Allenwood, where he is part of the general prison population.
The CMUs are nicknamed Little Gitmos, after the federal government’s controversial facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for detainees from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. CMU prisoners are separated from the general prison population, and their communication is heavily monitored and restricted.
In the past, prison officials have said the CMUs are designed for people convicted of terrorism, prisoners who have dealt drugs or tried to recruit or radicalize others behind bars and prisoners who have abused their communications privileges by harassing victims, judges and prosecutors. But the lawsuit alleges that many of the CMU inmates are low-security inmates.
Asked how the low security prison compares to the CMU, Aref wrote, “This is another prison. Still, I am not home and I am not free. But I do see my transfer to this place as one step forward toward both of them. Here, I feel I am a little closer to home and to freedom!” He added, “For me, this is not life! Because there is not life without freedom. It is true that I am not dead, but I am not really alive, either!”
Aref’s lawsuit challenging the CMUs was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, against U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Harley Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and D. Scott Dodrill, assistant director of the Correctional Programs Division.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons said the agency does not comment on pending litigation and did not respond to a list of emailed questions.
The Center for Constitutional Rights lawsuit alleges that the creation of the CMUs marked a dramatic change in prison policy, as the units were created without the opportunity for public notice and comment, in violation of the federal Administrative Procedures Act, which provides guidelines for how the federal government can propose and implement regulations.
The suit also claims that the plaintiffs, including Aref, were sent to the CMUs despite having relatively clean disciplinary histories, that the CMUs are discriminatory because the majority of prisoners are Muslim, and that CMU inmates were not allowed to examine or refute the allegations that led to their transfer.
According to the lawsuit, CMU prisoners are separated from the general prison population and are forbidden to have physical contact with friends and family. This is much different from how federal prisoners are typically treated, the lawsuit says, noting that “the [Bureau of Prisons] encourages contact visitation by family, friends and community groups to maintain the morale of the inmate and to aid rehabilitation. ... BOP prisoners are rarely denied contact visits even after being found guilty of serious disciplinary offenses.”
The lawsuit describes the impact of the physical contact ban on Aref and his family.
“When his children did visit him at the CMU, Mr. Aref found the pain of being divided by a barrier and speaking to them on a telephone to be unbearable,” the lawsuit says. “Mr. Aref’s wife is no longer willing to bring his children to the CMU for a non-contact visit because she fears it is too traumatizing to their children, and Mr. Aref agrees that the non-contact visits are very upsetting. Rather than subject himself and his young children to such restrictive and taxing visiting conditions, Mr. Aref has foregone receiving visits from his family. For that reason, Mr. Aref has not received a visit from his family for almost two years.”
In an email, Aref wrote that “four years of isolation in the CMU with no contact visits was more than enough to ruin the family and destroy relations. I am from the east where family relations means living under the same roof, sharing joy and pains on a daily basis. ... As for how my children are doing, I really don’t know. I am unaware of what they are experiencing every day, but they always tell me they are fine. I have no way to explain how much I miss them.”
Aref said that he is reading Albert Camus’ existentialist novel “The Stranger,” and “after reading about the empty life of Camus’ protagonist before and after his incarceration, not to mention his sentence, I find it even more difficult for myself to become angry or depressed. Indeed, it’s not easy to serve 15 years in prison for a crime I never did, and it’s not fun for me to see my family suffering, but what can I do? ... I am sure that depressing myself and becoming angry will not solve my problem. It will not ease my family’s situation. Therefore, I do not need anger and depression, I need the solution.”
Aref is scheduled to be released from prison in 2018 and will be deported upon his release, Manley, his attorney, said. His youngest child was born in the U.S. and is a citizen, but his older three are not, although they all have green cards. Their mother, Zuhur, applied for citizenship, but her application was denied.
Aref’s wife is not interested in speaking to reporters, according to family friends. She has never worked, but the family’s three-bedroom apartment is paid for through a fund maintained by local supporters, while the mosque provides the family with food. Some aid has also been provided by the Rosenberg Fund for Children, a nonprofit organization that assists children “whose parents are targeted, progressive activists,” according to the organization’s website.
Aref fled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime after his village was destroyed and arrived in Albany in 1999 with his family after living in Syria. The grandson of a well-known imam, he began preaching at the age of 13, and his oldest son, 15-year-old Raiber, seems poised to follow in his footsteps. He has started preaching at Masjid As-Salam and is interested in pursuing an education in religious studies after he graduates from Albany High School.
Shamshad Ahmad, a lecturer in physics at the University of Albany, founded Masjid As-Salam and hired Aref to serve as the mosque’s imam. He has also written a book about the case, “Rounded Up: Artificial Terrorists and Muslim Entrapment After 9/11.”
Ahmad said Aref was popular with members of the mosque. “He was very sincere, very helpful and very generous,” he said. “He was also very stubborn and very rigid.”
Prior to his arrival in the U.S., Aref had very little contact with non-Muslim people, Ahmad said. But since his arrest and conviction, he’s been “writing and exchanging emails with all sorts of people. It looks like he’s more liberal now.”
The Aref/Hossain case frightened many of the mosque’s members, Ahmad said. “Some people do not want to support [Aref] openly,” he said. “They think the smart thing is to stay away and keep a low profile. In the beginning, they were so scared and terrified that it’s difficult for me to describe.”
Formed in 2008, Project SALAM is creating a database of cases they believe have unfairly targeted Muslims. Members say the government has engaged in “preemptive prosecution” — officials deciding to pursue criminal cases based on what they fear people might do in the future, rather than anything they’ve actually done.
After Aref and Hossain were convicted, “We began to see how big the problem was,” Finley said. “The pre-emptive prosecution of Muslims on terrorism charges is going on throughout the country.”
The details of these cases are often different, but the intent is always the same, said Stephen Downs, a local attorney and member of Aref’s legal team. “The government decides they want to take someone down, and they figure out how to do it.”
Counterterrorism has been the FBI’s primary focus since 9/11, and the government’s philosophy has been described as the “1 percent doctrine,” after former vice president Dick Cheney’s remark that, “If there’s a 1 percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Queda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”
Pericak dismisses the notion that the Aref/Hossain case represents a new direction for the agency. He said that the government has long used undercover informants to get close to suspected terrorists and other criminals, and that sting operations are a standard tactic used in fighting crime.
“This is as old as the hills,” Pericak said. “We’ve been doing stings since forever.” He said the FBI targets a variety of criminals using stings, including drug dealers, Mafia members and people looking for child pornography.
Albany resident Lynn Jackson, a longtime activist known for her work with the environmental group Save the Pine Bush, became interested in Aref’s case after learning about it through Downs, who serves as attorney for Save the Pine Bush. When she heard that Aref enjoyed listening to the liberal radio show Democracy Now!, she sent him CD recordings of the show, unaware that he was unable to listen to CDs in the CMU.
“He wrote me a letter that broke my heart,” Jackson said. “I began to write to him, and he would write back — these amazing, sad letters.”
Jackson believed that the government would ultimately realize that it had erred in imprisoning Aref and Hossain — “I just thought it was so obvious” — and that eventually the two men would be freed. When he lost his appeal in 2008, “I was in a state of shock,” she said. The loss motivated her to found Project Salam.
Views of reality
From Project SALAM emerged the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, which is headed by Downs and comprised of Project SALAM and about 18 like-minded groups. The idea is to raise awareness of the pre-emptive prosecution and profiling of Muslims and challenge such cases throughout the country, according to Downs.
Pericak said Aref’s supporters refuse to acknowledge the facts. “The accusation is that I did something for a bad reason, and I know that’s not true,” he said. “[Aref’s supporters] don’t want their minds changed. They’re happy being ignorant of the facts. If you try to have a discussion of the facts, they turn away.”
The FBI used an informant, a convicted felon named Shahed Hussain, to get close to Aref and Hossain. Pericak said the FBI provided Hussain with a list of names of people who attended the Albany mosque and asked whether he knew any of them. Though he did not know Aref, he was acquainted with Hossain, and offered to loan him $50,000, which he later claimed came from the proceeds of the sale of surface-to-air missile to the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed. None of this was true, but Aref was eventually brought in to witness the loan transaction.
“It’s not like there was a great long-range plan with 52 steps,” Pericak said. He said that Aref was aware that the informant claimed to have done business with Jaish-e-Mohammed and that the organization was a terrorist group. “He knew the guy was involved in a terrorist group, and he continued to work with him,” he said.
Aref’s supporters say that his ability to understand what was going on was limited by his poor English, that he never saw the missile that the informant showed to Hossain and that he was unaware he had done anything that could be considered wrong. They also point to Hussain’s criminal background and a terrorism case in Newburgh, where Hussain served as an informant and was found to have perjured himself, as a reason to reexamine Aref’s conviction.
In the Newburgh case, which members of Project SALAM cite as an example of the government’s misguided targeting of Muslims, Hussain recruited four men to join him in a fictitious plot to blow up synagogues in the Bronx. All four men were poor, and one was described as being almost mentally retarded.
Aref said he remains thankful for his supporters in the community. “[H]ow could I ever thank them adequately?” he wrote. “Not only the victory be theirs if I ever find justice, but we will never know how many similar tragedies they have prevented by drawing attention to preemptive prosecution on a national level.”
He said his heart is “full of peace.”