The government offensive against Muslims in America met fresh opposition yesterday in Albany, New York when dozens of leaders of the anti-war movement and other progressive causes joined with Muslims to protest the recent guilty verdicts in the trial of Imam Yassin Aref and Mohammed Musharraf Hossain.
Aref and Hossain were accused and convicted of participating in a make-believe plot carefully concocted by the FBI. Soon after the verdict, activists from a broad range of peace and justice causes, Muslim and not, joined together at a hastily-called Friday night meeting, attended by approximately 50 people. They formed the Muslim Defense Committee, called a November 2 press conference, and are also mobilizing to support the families of the convicted men.
The press conference took place in front of the Masjid As-Salam mosque in Albany, where Aref served as Imam and Hossain worshipped. Well-attended by local newspaper, radio, and television reporters, the event also drew nearly 100 supporters of the newly formed committee. Speakers denounced the recent verdicts and insisted upon leniency at their sentencing. Sentencing guidelines appear likely to suggest a sentence of 30 years to life in prison. In the recent cases of Imam Umar and Lynne Stewart, however, judges have used wide discretion at sentencing, over the recommendations of federal prosecutors.
Speakers at the press conference further emphasized that families, especially children, have suffered as a result of the frame-up. Yassin Aref and his wife Zahur Jalal have 4 children; Mohammed Hossain and his wife Mohammat Hossain have 6 children.
The Muslim Defense Committee has posted a detailed fact sheet about the case (pdf).
The charges against the men were the product of an FBI sting operation that was initiated in 2003. The goal of the plot invented by the FBI was to entrap the two men, although neither had ever been known to do anything illegal. The FBI plot was to lure the two men into agreeing to launder money from the sale of a shoulder-fired missile launcher. In the fictitious plot, the weapon in turn would be used in a New York City plot to assassinate the UN Ambassador from Pakistan. The FBI enlisted the help of a Shahed “Malik” Hussain, a Pakistani immigrant who became an FBI informant after being arrested in December 2001.
The two were arrested in August 2004; news of their arrest made international headlines. Mohommed Hossain, a United States citizen originally from Bangladesh, was eventually released on bond, awaiting trial. Imam Yassin Aref, a Kurdish refugee from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the prime target of the FBI all along, was held in prison in solitary confinement awaiting trial. Hossain, the owner of a struggling pizza business, was offered a loan from the FBI informant, who was posing as a wealthy importer. Aref, the Imam at Hossain’s mosque, was asked to witness the transaction, something the FBI anticipated and hoped for from the start of the scheme.
When the men were arrested, the government made public that Imam Yassin Aref’s name and Albany address had been found by American troops in Iraq in 2003. Initially they claimed that the notation was found at a “terrorist camp” and that, in Kurdish, it identified Aref as “commander.” Within days of the arrest, the United States Department of Justice notified the court that the word “commander” had been mistranslated — the notation in fact read “brother.” No confirmation about the Kurdish house being a “terrorist stronghold” later emerged — indeed much of the government’s case depended upon classified evidence that the defendants’ lawyers were not allowed to see (in spite of obtaining security clearances).
Mistranslation and misinformation loomed throughout the case, for Hossain and Hussain conducted their business in Urdu when in fact both men knew English better. When Aref entered the scene, discussions took place in English, at a time when his English comprehension and vocabulary were demonstrably lacking. The FBI translation of the tapes (in Urdu) were challenged by Hossain’s attorney — who had a competing Urdu translation prepared. During the trial, the judge appointed a referee translator — who adopted the translations of the defense translator.
Attorneys for the defendants learned in January 2006, from the front page of the New York Times (of all sources!), that the National Security Agency had been wiretapping their clients: “different officials agree that the N.S.A.’s domestic operations played a role in the arrest of an imam and another man in Albany in August 2004 as part of an F.B.I. counterterrorism sting investigation.” Their arrest was thus used by the executive branch of the American government to justify further warrantless wiretapping.
A motion to suppress illegally obtained evidence and to dismiss the charges (since they depended upon illegal wiretapping) was made by the defense attorneys but then rejected in a bizarre “classified” ruling. The appeal of this ruling, the reasoning of which remained secret to defense attorneys, was then rejected on procedural grounds, with the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals saying that it could not intervene, for the case was still pending in a lower court.
The trial of the two men concluded on October 10, 2006, when Aref was found guilty on 10 of 30 counts and Hossain found guilty on all 27 counts. Each was convicted of charges that included money laundering and “providing material support and resources to a foreign terrorist organization.” Sentencing is scheduled for Februrary.
Malik Hussain, who executed the government’s plot, testified that he was ordered by the FBI to befriend the Yassin Aref men and to infiltrate the Masjid As-Salam mosque in 2003, a time when he faced 15 years in prison and deportation. Hussain, who had been accused of participating in a corrupt system of helping immigrants obtain driver’s licenses in exchange for bribes, faced 80 or more felony counts. He pled guilty to a solitary felony in 2003. Hussain was freed on October 27, after the guilty verdicts for Aref and Hossain, and sentenced to time served. The United States Attorney was quoted in the Times Union as offering to help him with any immigration issues in consideration of his role as an informant, for Hussain has a green card.
Local press coverage has been intense. Brendon J. Lyons, staff writer for the Times Union, Albany’s daily newspaper, covered the case and the trial in a series of detailed articles. Carl Strock, op-ed columnist for the Daily Gazette (a daily newspaper based in Schenectady) wrote of the verdict: “I hang my head in shame.” Following the verdict, Abuhamza Hossain, Mohammed Hossain’s 13 year old son, told TV station Channel 9: “We’re being targeted because we’re Muslims, and they want us to look like we’re terrorists.”
People in upstate New York have become keenly aware of government victimization of Muslims, which began immediately following September 11, 2001.
Ali Yaghi was arrested in late September 2001, on suspicion of sympathizing with the 9/11 terrorists, held imprisoned at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, and ultimately deported to Jordan in 2002. His family was the focus of a support campaign by Women Against War.
Ansar Mahmood, a pizza delivery person in Hudson, was arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist in October 2001. His crime? He had stopped to take a picture of the Hudson Valley and Catskill mountains (on a brilliant fall day) from a hill that is the site of the water treatment plant for the City of Hudson. Mahmood, defended by a public defender who erroneously advised him to enter a plea bargain on immigration charges, became the center of strenuous efforts on behalf of the Chatham Peace Initiative. He was deported to Pakistan in 2004, after nearly 3 years in prison.
Rafil Dhafir, MD is an oncologist from suburban Syracuse who was arrested in February 2003, held without bond and convicted on charges that ultimately included Medicare fraud. He was sought for the “crime” of organizing a charity to provide humanitarian aid to Iraq during the period of sanctions against that country. The Bush administration pointed to this case as an example of a “victory” in the “war on terrorism.”
Imam Umar has been the center of a defense campaign organized by the Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace since shortly after the Wall Street Journal published an article in February 2002, falsely claiming that he sympathized with the 9/11 hijackers. Governor Pataki and Senator Schumer publicly denounced Imam Umar for teaching terrorism in the New York State prisons, from which Umar had retired after 25 years. The Imam Umar Defense Committee efforts redoubled in 2005 after the New York City Police raided his home in Bethlehem, a township immediately south of Albany, well over 100 miles north of New York City. Recent events in the defense of Imam Umar can be found here.
Among those who attended in support of the press conference were members of the Masjid As-Salam mosque as well as other local muslims, and members of organizations including Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, Women Against War, the Capital District Labor-Religion Coalition, the Solidarity Committee of the Capital District, the Capital District Chapter of the Interfaith Alliance, Veterans for Peace (Tom Paine Chapter), Upper Hudson Peace Action, the Green Party, Guilderland Neighbors for Peace, Saratoga Peace Alliance, Southern Rensselaer Neighbors for Peace, Pax Christi, and others.
At the press conference, Joe Lombardo, who, with Maureen Aumand, organized the event for the committee, read a statement on behalf of the Muslim Defense Committee, Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, and Women Against War:
We oppose our government’s sting operation and frame-up of two Muslim men, Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain. We see the government’s attack on them in the context of the recent attacks on our Bill of Rights and civil liberties, which include the end of the 700 year old right of habeas corpus, warrantless wire taps, torture of prisoners, and other civil liberties violations.
Had the government not led these men into the acts of which they were convicted, they would still be living their lives and supporting their families in legal and productive ways. Their trial made clear that Aref and Hossain did not know that what they were doing was illegal. This was demonstrated by the fact that they had insisted that all of the financial transactions be put in writing. Now they face possible life sentences.
Both Aref and Hossain have families that depend on them. Both are opposed to terrorism and hold moderate political views. Why did our government choose to go after them? Was it to show that no Muslim is safe today? Was it to terrorize the entire Muslim community? Was it to further the atmosphere of hatred and fear that has gripped our country?
The world has seen too much victimization of persons on the basis of their religion and nation origin. We therefore feel obligated to speak out when we see such victimization going on in our own community.
We ask the judge to be lenient in sentencing Aref and Hossain.
Other people also spoke at the press conference. Doug Bullock, first vice president of the Albany Central Federation of Labor said, “there would be no crime if there had been no FBI involvement.” He continued, saying that, by expanding entrapment as a weapon of repression, the FBI threatened the freedom of all. Ed Bloch spoke as a member of the Interfaith Alliance, denounced the “sting” as a frame-up, and called for community strength in the face of such injustice. Laura Sharp gave a message of solidarity on behalf of the Labor-Religion Coalition. Imam Warith Deen Umar, who is presently sentenced to spend a year under house arrest, sent a message of solidarity via videotape.
Following the press conference, the Muslim Defense Committee passed the hat among supporters for donations to help support the families of Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain.
If you would like to donate, contributions can be made out to the Aref/Hossain Family Fund and mailed to: Aref/Hossain Family Fund, c/o Law Office of Steven Downs, 26 Dinmore Rd, Selkirk, NY 12158. All money will go directly for the needs of the two families, who include 10 young children.
Cards and letters to Yassen Aref and/or Mohammed Hossain can be sent c/o Rensselaer County Jail, 4000 Main St., Troy, NY 12180.
The Muslim Defense Committee can be reached via email to callanca(at)gmail.com or jlombard(at)nycap.rr.com.
A founding member of Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace, Andrew D. Coates, MD practices medicine in Albany, NY.