The first indication Yassin Aref’s friends and family had that his status had changed was the arrival of a box of his books.
The books were sent to Jeanne Finley, one of Aref’s friends. There was no note of explanation, and the box had been mailed by one of Aref’s fellow inmates, rather than Aref himself.
“I began to realize something was going on,” Finley said.
Some details soon emerged.
Aref, the Albany imam convicted on terrorism-related charges in 2006, is in the process of being moved to a new prison. But he has not been informed where he is going, or why he is going there, according to Kathy Manley, his attorney.
Aref was transferred to a high-security federal prison in Canaan, Pa., on Nov. 29, but this is not his final destination. He is expected to be moved elsewhere. Manley said it isn’t unusual for prisoners to be moved and temporarily housed in a federal prison, but Aref’s transition, which has lasted more than a month, seems to be taking an unusually long time.
Aref’s case remains controversial. He was arrested in a high-profile FBI sting, accused of taking part in a scheme to launder the proceeds of the sale of a missile to a terrorist group. But he has a base of supporters in the Capital Region who believe he is innocent and was unfairly targeted and prosecuted, though the federal government maintains otherwise.
Since his conviction, Aref has lived in a succession of prisons and jails.
In 2011, he was transferred to a low-security federal prison in Allenwood, Pa., after spending about four years in a highly restrictive, isolated prison unit known as a Communication Management Unit. He lived in two different CMUs, one at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., and one at a federal prison in Marion, Ill.
In Allenwood, Aref had access to email and was an avid correspondent, writing long notes to his friends. He was able to make regular phone calls and see visitors and was part of the general prison population. But in Canaan, his activities are more restricted. He is unable to email or have visitors, his access to the phone appears to have been reduced to one phone call a month, and though he is able to send handwritten letters, Manley said she has been told he can only send three a week.
“They gave him a pencil,” she said.
Stephen Downs, a local attorney and member of Aref’s legal team, said Aref’s experience is not unusual, and inmates in transition typically have fewer privileges and fewer opportunities to communicate.
Downs heads a relatively new organization, the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, which aims to bring attention to what members believe is the misguided targeting of Muslims since 9/11. He said relatives of prisoners often call him to complain a loved one is being moved and that they do not know where the prisoner is going, how to contact them or why they are being transferred.
“For any family member who has to go through this, it’s very, very disturbing,” Downs said. “They have no recourse.”
Manley spoke to Aref by phone on Dec. 26.
“He sounded a little depressed,” she said. “He’s been [in Canaan] for over a month, and he has no idea when they’re going to move him.”
She said he is likely in solitary confinement, which is typical for prisoners in transition.
A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Chris Burke, said the agency cannot comment on why a particular prisoner is being moved, but outlined some of the reasons that might prompt a transfer. He said prisoners are often moved closer to their families as their release date approaches, so it’s easier for them to transition back to civilian life. They can also be moved to a higher security prison if they misbehave, or to a lower security prison if their behavior has been good. Prisoners who are in danger are sometimes moved for their own safety, he said.
Burke said the amount of time it takes to move prisoners varies, “depending on where they are going.”
Manley said Aref has a good record.
“He’s never been in any trouble,” she said.
Manley said one possibility is that Aref will be moved to a private prison that houses inmates who are going to be deported. Aref is expected to be deported when he is released in 2018.
Shortly after the arrival of Aref’s box of books, Finley received a four-page letter from the prisoner who mailed Aref’s books. The prisoner said Aref was given little notice before his transfer, writing “what an unexpected rush it was!” He also said that “there are far worse options” than a stay at the prison in Canaan, describing it as clean and well-organized, with “relatively good” food.
The prisoner wrote it was unclear why Aref was being transferred, but speculated it was part of a strategy to move Aref, who was popular with inmates at Allenwood, from prison to prison, disrupting his relationships and demoralizing him. A prisoner who is moved frequently “can never establish a routine or a relationship,” wrote the prisoner. “He is always starting over, waiting for property to arrive from the last spot and losing plenty in the process.”
Finley has also received a brief note from Aref, along with some poetry he had translated from English to Kurdish.
Another box showed up at the Albany mosque where Aref served as imam prior to his conviction in 2006. This box contained two letters, one for his children and one for Shamshad Ahmad, one of the mosque’s founders.
“He mentioned that he was moving,” Ahmad said, “but it’s taking a long time.”
Prior to his arrest, Aref served as the imam at Masjid As-Salam, a storefront mosque on Albany’s Central Avenue. He fled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime after his village was destroyed and arrived in Albany with his family in 1999, after living in Syria.
Aref is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the legality of the CMUs and maintains he did nothing wrong and should never have been arrested, tried or sent to prison. The CMUs were established after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,, as part of the country’s ongoing war on terror.
A Kurdish refugee, Aref was arrested in a dramatic FBI sting in 2004 and eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison. Another local man, pizzeria owner Mohammed Hossain, was also charged, convicted and sent to prison. In the FBI’s sting, an undercover informant offered Hossain the opportunity to make some money by laundering proceeds of the sale of a missile to a terrorist group. Aref got involved months later, when he agreed to witness the transaction. The terrorist plot was a fictional scenario created by the FBI.
Aref’s supporters say the government never should have targeted the two men, as neither had criminal backgrounds and never would have gotten into trouble had the informant not entered their lives.
The government has maintained Aref and Hossain are both dangerous men, and their willingness to go along with the plot demonstrates a willingness to work with terrorist groups.
In an interview about the case last year, 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, said Aref’s supporters are deluded. Based on the information the FBI had about Aref, whose name and phone number were found at three different Iraqi locations associated with the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam, “it would have been criminal” not to investigate him, Pericak said.
In response to emailed questions last year, Aref said he was trying not to become depressed about his situation.
“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?” he wrote. “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 a solution.”