Last Friday, Congressman David Obey (D-WI), took the first -- and courageous -- step to end the 20-year ban on federal funding of needle exchange. But opponents are gearing up to reinstate the ban and prevention advocates need to mobilize now.
For two decades now, a culture war has taken place, one pitting science against ideology and public health against politics. This prohibition has done nothing but impede efforts to address the global HIV/AIDS crisis. In its markup of the Labor-HHS-Education spending bill, the Subcommittee removed the ban on federal funding of needle exchange programs (NEPs).
Lifting the ban provides greater options for States and local jurisdictions that require new and effective tools to prevent the spread of HIV. The ban equips those on the front lines to decide if, how, and where they want to implement syringe access and disposal services.
Though the ban language was first introduced in 1988, evidence in support of funding NEPs has been piling up since well before 1998, when then Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and Surgeon General David Satcher detailed the effectiveness of these programs. Research has proven that needle exchange programs:
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3)Provide entry points for drug treatment and other support services; and
4)Do NOT increase local crime rates.
The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations coordinating authority on international public health, has also indicated similar findings.
Domestic and International Support
There are a host of domestic and international organizations and agencies that support NEPs including: the WHO, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), American Medical Association (AMA), American Public Health Association (APHA), American Bar Association (ABA), and National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA), among others. For a longer list of supporting organizations, check out this link from House Government Oversight and Reform Committee.
“Needle exchange programs have been proven to reduce the transmission of blood borne diseases. A number of studies conducted in the U.S. have shown needle exchange programs do not increase drug use. I understand that research has shown these programs when implemented in the context of a comprehensive program that offers other services such as referral to counseling, healthcare, drug treatment, HIV/AIDS Prevention, counseling and testing are effective at connecting addicted users to drug treatment.”
Opposition Aims to Sustain Culture War
Health experts almost universally agree that NEPs reduce transmission of HIV and protect not only drug users but also the general population. Unfortunately, some members of Congress still refuse to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence. They are mounting opposition to removing the federal ban. The Washington Post recently reported Ranking Sub-committee Member Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) as saying,
"I am very concerned that we would use federal tax dollars to support the drug habits of people who desperately need help."
In 1998, Former Surgeon General David Satcher warned,
“One of the worst things that can happen in this country is for us to say, if the science doesn’t agree with our perspective, then we want to suppress the science.’’
Representative Tiahrt and others on the opposition are doing just that. They are blatantly ignoring the evidence and preparing to wage yet another battle in the culture war. As the legislation moves through Congress – maybe as early as this Friday (July 17th) — they will try to restore the ban to the bill and sustain the status quo which has until now hampered a more comprehensive response to the HIV/AIDS crisis, domestically and abroad. Undoubtedly, the opposition’s anachronistic anti-harm-reduction ideology has contributed to the rapid spread of the HIV epidemic. Needle sharing is a highly efficient form of HIV transmission, and the practice has led to explosive epidemics throughout our country and around the globe.
The HIV pandemic continues to grow exponentially among populations in Eastern Europe and Central and South-East Asia, where it is largely driven by unsafe injection practices. Studies in cities around the world have shown that without adequate harm-reduction polices and programs, HIV prevalence rates can rise among drug users to as high as 90% in a very short period of time. Importantly, HIV also spreads sexually beyond drug user networks, infecting non-injecting partners.
Stepping Up to Meet the Challenge
We can no longer afford to waste time. With PEPFAR, we have made significant progress in global HIV prevention and treatment in heavily AIDS-burdened nations. Yet, we still live in a world where, for every 2 individuals treated for HIV, 5 more become infected. Federally-funded needle exchange programs will help curb HIV transmission in the injecting drug user community and reduce the risk of new infections among everyone.
Thankfully, Chairman Obey took the first steps in support of this rights- and science-based prevention method last week. Yet, indications that Representative Tiahrt and his cohort will try to reintroduce the ban language into the spending bill even this week are of great concern.
Who will get through to the opposition? Who will tell them that we need to break from politics as usual? We each must do our part to ensure Chairman Obey’s efforts are not in vain. We have an unprecedented opportunity to persuade our legislators to vote for long overdue change. Call members of the Appropriations Committee at 202-224-3121 today.
(1) Committee Members: Ask them to support Chairman Obey’s efforts and request that they vote against any amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations bill that would reinstate the federal ban or put further restrictions on syringe exchange. Conclude with Clean Needles Save Lives!
(2) Chairman Obey: Thank him for his commitment to ending the 20-year prohibition on this vital, science-based harm-reduction method. For more information syringe exchange programs and materials for advocacy, please visit Harm Reduction Coalition: Syringe Access.
Make your calls today and spread the word. Lives depend on you.
Almost three years ago, the State of Indiana first charged Purvi Patel with both feticide and neglect of a dependent following Patel’s home delivery of what state doctors testified was a 25-week-old fetus. Today, there is still no clear picture of the events leading up to those charges. Based on the conflicting evidence presented at Patel’s seven-day trial, it’s not clear what Patel knew about her pregnancy, including how far along she was. It’s not clear what exactly happened that day in Patel’s bathroom. And, most importantly, there is no clear picture of whether the delivery resulted in a live birth.
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But on Monday, lawyers from the state Attorney General’s Office argued to the Indiana Court of Appeals that none of those unknowns matter. Patel’s charges of feticide for unlawfully terminating her pregnancy and neglecting a live dependent were not contradictory. Quite simply, argued Indiana Deputy Attorney General Ellen Meilaender, if there’s evidence that a person’s conduct contributed to the death of a fetus or a severely prematurely infant born alive that then dies, that person faces possible felony prosecution both for feticide and criminal neglect of a dependent—setting a disturbing potential precedent for pregnant people throughout the state.
The Indiana feticide statute makes it a felony for a person to “knowingly or intentionally terminate a human pregnancy with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.” The statute is silent on whether a self-induced abortion falls under this category. Indiana prosecutors argue that it does and told the appeals court Monday that the jury verdict against Patel proved them right.
The state made a similar argument with Patel’s conviction for felony neglect of a dependent. According to the state, by taking abortion-inducing drugs, Patel created a situation that put her “dependent”—in other words, her fetus—in harm’s way. Once delivered alive, the state argued, Patel had a legal duty to immediately seek medical attention on its behalf, including clamping her umbilical cord immediately after delivery to prevent neonatal blood loss and calling 9-1-1 for emergency care. It made no difference, prosecutors said, that the medical evidence was contradictory as to whether there was a live birth at all, or what, if anything, Patel understood was happening at the time of the delivery.
Patel’s attorneys may disagree with the inferences made by the jury, state attorneys argued, but that doesn’t mean the law grants the court grounds to overturn the jury verdict.
It wasn’t clear to me at the end of oral arguments that the three-judge panel was buying the State’s argument. The judges pushed Meilaender hard on where the law should draw the line between taking nonprescribed abortion medications that produce a live birth where the baby then dies—as the state argued happened here—to drinking whiskey, smoking cigarettes, or taking any other host of actions that may help contribute to a miscarriage. The judges seemed to agree that it would be excessive to prosecute pregnant people for smoking, for example. The judges also appeared skeptical about the argument that the feticide statute doesn’t require the fetus to die in utero, and that even a live birth can and should be prosecuted under this statute if the accused person’s original intent was to terminate a pregnancy outside Indiana’s stringent legal abortion requirements.
But it also wasn’t clear they bought the argument of Patel’s attorney, Lawrence Marshall, that the state hadn’t met its burden of proof when it convicted her. Marshall stammered to keep the judges on point, refusing to answer whether federal constitutional precedent, from Roe v. Wade to Planned Parenthood v. Casey, would protect many other people from unchecked pregnancy policing under feticide laws. (Spoiler: The simple answer is no—as Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, to name a few, show).
The heart of the state’s negligence case against Patel rests on her alleged failure to seek care for a live birth. Yet Marshall could not specifically and directly answer the judges’ concerns that Patel, after allegedly cutting the umbilical cord during delivery, should have also immediately clamped or kinked it to prevent any blood loss to the fetus she just delivered. He did not note that it is unreasonable to expect any woman immediately following an extremely premature delivery to have the presence of mind to do such things, lest she face felony prosecution. He tried to point out that there was medical testimony at trial that at 25 weeks, severely prematurely born infants have only modest survival rates even when born at hospitals and immediately transferred to neonatal intensive care units, and tried to argue the state couldn’t prove that Patel had any idea a live birth had even happened. But all those counters appeared to fall flat on a panel of judges clearly willing to consider, and perhaps even accept, that Patel’s failure to kink her umbilical cord and call 9-1-1 immediately post-delivery was sufficient to convict her for felony neglect of a dependent.
Throughout the trial and the appeal, the state compensated for its lack of direct evidence about the situation by trying to redirect the jury’s focus to Patel’s “character,” which, prosecutors argued, helped inform the decision to convict her. Patel was in a relationship with a married man. Evidence at trial showed she had been texting back and forth with a friend concerning the pregnancy and her desire to terminate it, in part because of fears her conservative Hindu family would not support her. That’s both sexually provocative and naive, argued the state in its appellate brief—provocative because she was acting outside religious and social norms, and naive because “family would have loved her regardless and would have welcomed the baby, as it is their religious belief to love a child even if born out of wedlock and their religion is opposed to killing anyone or anything.”
Meanwhile, the state argued, the evidence that should be weighed in Patel’s favor did not matter. That included evidence at trial that showed Patel believed she was only about 12 weeks pregnant—not about 25 weeks—when she took the unprescribed abortifacient. Not important, argued the state. All that matters is her fetus was old enough to fall outside Indiana’s limit on 20-week abortions. Evidence at trial showed that Patel tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to navigate Indiana’s web of anti-choice restrictions before ordering abortion-inducing medications online; but that just demonstrates Patel had the right criminal intent to support the jury’s conviction, said Meilaender, not that those regulations are difficult for non-lawyers to navigate on their own.
In other words, argued Meilaender, the details that should normally be necessary to support a criminal conviction—details such as what Patel knew, and when—just don’t matter in this case.
Those details do matter. That’s why the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected nearly identical arguments in the prosecution of Jenni Linn McCormack, an Idaho woman who also terminated a pregnancy and was criminally prosecuted for it. Expecting patients to understand the intricacies of abortion restrictions or face criminal prosecution at its very core unduly burdens abortion rights, that court ruled.
It will likely be months before the Indiana Court of Appeals issues its opinion. And I’m not going to make any guesses about how this case turns out. But I will say that, despite all the unknowns in the Patel case, there are plenty of knowns that ultimately affect Patel and pregnant people in Indiana as a whole.
We know that Indiana law does not mandate sex education be taught in its schools. The Indiana Department of Education recommends its inclusion as part of a school’s comprehensive health education program. But that’s it. And for those schools that decide to offer some form of sex ed, there’s no requirement that the information provided be unbiased and medically accurate, let alone do anything other than stress abstinence-only sex ed. And of course, parents in Indiana have the option of opting out of sex ed entirely for their children should they so choose.
We also know that legal abortion in Indiana is extensively and severely restricted. First, any person seeking an abortion must receive state-mandated counseling that includes information designed to discourage the patient from having an abortion. That counseling must be done in person. Indiana law then requires a patient to wait an additional 18 hours after that counseling session before an abortion can be performed. That means, effectively, patients must make two separate trips to an abortion clinic to have the procedure. A patient must also undergo an ultrasound before obtaining an abortion and during that ultrasound the provider must offer her the option to view the ultrasound image.
Indiana law also prohibits the use of telemedicine for medication abortion. Also, Indiana bans abortions after 20 weeks, with only a very narrow exception of when the patient’s life or physical health is at risk.
And if that patient can navigate the consent and waiting period requirements, how will they pay for the procedure? In Indiana, abortion is covered in private insurance policies only in cases of life endangerment, rape, incest, or the severely compromised health of the pregnant person. Individuals have the option of buying a separate abortion policy, but that, of course, is at additional cost.
What do Indiana’s sex ed requirements and abortion restrictions have to do with Patel’s conviction and appeal? Everything.Just like the fact that Patel, like Bei Bei Shuai before her, is not white and is not wealthy. A lack of comprehensive sex education means it’s increasingly likely other patients will, like Patel, have very little apparent understanding of the pregnancy process, particularly early on in pregnancy when indicators such as a missed period can be mixed. An increasingly draconian set of abortion restrictions means more and more patients like Patel will find themselves unable to access a legal provider or afford an abortion at all, which means that more and more patients like Patel will be forced into either attempting to self-terminate an unwanted pregnancy or carrying it to term.
Attorneys for the State of Indiana tried to tone down the “canary in a coal mine” aspect to Patel’s conviction. But there really is no denying it. During Monday’s arguments, they were pressing for the right to bring felony charges against women who terminate their own pregnancies. They insisted those prosecutions are exactly what the Indiana legislature intended when passing its feticide statute and further, such prosecutions advanced the state’s “significant” interest in protecting “unborn human life.”
Combine those arguments with the unavailability of comprehensive sex ed and the anti-choice restrictions in Indiana, and it’s clear that Patel’s case is absolutely a test case in the limits, if any, of state power to regulate pregnancies and their outcomes. Should Patel’s conviction be upheld, then the courts will have sent a very strong message to the the people of Indiana: The state expects and demands a healthy, live birth with each pregnancy, and failure to produce one could result in felony charges.
In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how Muslim families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.
This is the second article in Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in the series here.
When Virginia native Mariam Abu-Ali was 14 years old, her life abruptly turned upside down. It was 2003, two years after the September 11 attacks and well into an era of counterterrorism tactics that were systematically hollowing out Muslim residents’ civil liberties and constitutional protections in the United States. But the Abu-Ali family never imagined they would be caught up in the dragnet.
Mariam’s then-22-year-old brother, Ahmed Omar, had been studying in Medina, Saudi Arabia, when he was arrested in connection with a series of May 2003 terrorist attacks in Riyadh.
In an interview with Rewire, Mariam says her brother, who was born in Texas, was held in solitary confinement in a Saudi jail for nearly two years without ever being charged with a crime. During that time, Mariam tells Rewire over the phone, there is strong evidence that he was tortured. Although defense expert Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Program for Survivors of Torture at the Bellevue/NYU Hospital, examined Ahmed and testified at his U.S. trial to the evidence of torture, an appeals court eventually ruled that Ahmed’s statements to Saudi interrogators were “voluntary.”
When, after months of legal pressure from his family, he was finally returned to the United States, a court for the Eastern District of Virginia charged him with multiple counts, including conspiring with an Al-Qaeda cell in Medina to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Following a trial that permitted the admission of what Mariam called “a coerced confession,” he was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison, and later re-sentenced to life.
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Yet as legal experts like Elaine Cassel, author of The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights, have pointed out, “Nowhere in the indictment [was] Abu-Ali tied to any terrorist event or action”—either in the United States or in Saudi Arabia.
Instead, his case fell under the shadowy material support statutes that have governed much of the United States’ counterterrorism operation in the years since 9/11, under the USA Patriot Act of 2001. This set of laws allows the U.S. government to preemptively prosecute individuals for engaging in terrorism based on their perceived predisposition toward violence, rather than their actions. Over the past 15 years, hundreds of Muslims have disappeared in a warren of these convoluted laws; they are currently locked up in high-security prisons around the country.
A constellation of families, scholars, activists, and civil rights organizations have long challenged the effects of material support charges, as well as the unfair trials and the lengthy and harsh prison sentences that tend to follow them. Over the past few years, they have come together in a campaign called No Separate Justice, an attempt to unite far-flung groups and individuals who are working to dismantle what they say is a parallel and unjust legal system for Muslim residents in post-9/11 America.
Women like Mariam Abu-Ali have been at the forefront of the movement—along with Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories Rewire has previously reported on—advocating on behalf of their loved ones.
In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.
“Dangerous” Minds, Draconian Measures
Mariam Abu-Ali says her brother’s case represents many of the civil rights violations that have marred the decade and a half since 9/11, a sentiment that is echoed in the final opinion on Ahmed Omar’s case penned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
In its unanimous decision to uphold the guilty verdict on nine terrorism-related counts against Ahmed in 2008, the three-judge bench wrote:
Persons of good will may disagree over the precise extent to which the formal criminal justice process must be utilized when those suspected of participation in terrorist cells and networks are involved … the criminal justice system is not without those attributes of adaptation that will permit it to function in the post-9/11 world.
While the opinion does not explicitly state what these “attributes of adaptation” are, studies on counterterrorism indicate they could refer to any number of legal practices that have become normalized since September 11. In particular, they could refer to the use of material support statutes, which have played a significant role in the prosecution of Muslim Americans like Ahmed Omar.
As FBI Assistant Director Gary Bald testified to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2004:
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the material support statutes to our ongoing counterterrorism efforts. The statutes are sufficiently broad to include terrorist financers and supporters who provide a variety of resources to terrorist networks. The statutes provide the investigative predicate which allows intervention at the earliest possible stage of terrorist planning to identify and arrest terrorists and supporters before a terrorist attack occurs. [Emphasis added.]
In short, material support statutes have enabled federal authorities to prosecute people based on suspicion of what they might do in the future rather than any overt criminal act. The statutes primarily refer to “support” for terrorist networks as weapons, arms training, or direct funding. Prosecutors, courts, and juries, however, have interpreted the laws much more broadly to encompass the sharing of religious or political texts online, casual conversations between friends, or charitable donations to organizations in areas controlled by terrorist groups.
In many instances, material support charges have amounted to nothing more than thought crimes, in which law-abiding Muslim residents have been penalized simply for expressing their religious and political views.
According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, material support cases rose sharply in the decade following the September 11 attacks. Prior to 9/11, just six individuals had been charged under these laws in the United States. In the decade following, 168 of 917 domestic terrorism convictions analyzed by HRW fell under such statutes, accounting for 18 percent of all terrorism-related convictions in that time period.
Even a cursory look at some of these cases is sufficient to grasp the breadth of these laws, which have pushed deep into Muslim communities, tearing through many layers of social fabric along the way.
In 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed by Yale professor Andrew March on the case of Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born doctor and community leader who was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison because his opinions about Islam, expressed online, were deemed a form of material support for terrorist causes.
March wrote in the Times:
As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens. As a human being, I sometimes feel joy (I am ashamed to admit) at the suffering of some humans and anger at the suffering of others. At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes.
March’s op-ed illustrates a frightening truth about material support statutes: They allow for the preemptive prosecution of individuals who have not yet committed a crime but whom the government deems capable of possibly committing a crime in the future.
Other cases, such as the Holy Land Five, demonstrate a pattern in which material support laws have essentially criminalized charitable giving. The case involved the founders of the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity that provided humanitarian aid to the needy, including women and children in Palestine. Though the government concluded that the Holy Land Foundation never directly aided a terrorist organization, it nonetheless prosecuted five of its members for funneling aid through charitable committees into areas controlled by Hamas, a designated Palestinian terrorist group, thereby violating material support statutes. Journalists called the verdict an attack on Islam itself, particularly the practice of zakat, which mandates that Muslims allocate a portion of their wealth or earnings for charitable causes.
From its very inception, the No Separate Justice (NSJ) campaign has fought this flawed notion, with mothers and sisters of the accused becoming the movement’s most prominent spokespeople. NSJ initially coalesced around the case of a Muslim American named Fahad Hashmi.
Hashmi had been working toward a master’s degree in international relations at London Metropolitan University when he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in 2006. In 2007 he became the first U.S. citizen to be extradited following the loosening of restrictions around the process after 9/11, according to an article by Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ campaign, who taught Hashmi as an undergraduate.
He was initially held in pretrial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan. MCC’s notoriety was cemented in a 2010 New York Timesarticle that quoted a former Guantanamo detainee, who was also held at the MCC, as saying the Cuban military prison was “more pleasant” and “more relaxed” than the federal detention facility in New York City.
Hashmi was also subjected to special administrative measures, government restrictions on a terror suspect’s communications that amount to a gag order on the case and their conditions of confinement. Advocates say these were drastic measures relative to the charges against him: Hashmi’s only crime, according to Theoharis’ article, was allowing an acquaintance to spend a night in his apartment, an acquaintance who would later deliver a suitcase of raincoats and waterproof socks to Al Qaeda members. This same acquaintance would later become a cooperating witness for the government in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and testify against Hashmi in a trial that ended with a guilty verdict and a 15-year sentence.
Stunned by Hashmi’s conditions of confinement, a group called Theaters Against War linked arms with Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative to host weekly vigils outside the MCC in 2009. These gatherings, which continue to this day, form the nucleus of the NSJ movement.
“We wanted to build a coalition so people from different backgrounds could bring their institutional expertise and moral conscience into the same arena as family members, and create a space where people could express outrage at what was happening,” Sally Eberhardt, one of NSJ’s earliest organizers, tells Rewire.
At first, larger civil liberties groups kept their distance, possibly because “this isn’t exactly the most funder-friendly issue in the world,” Eberhardt suggests. But advocates persisted, holding candlelight protests even on the bitterest winter nights, singing songs and chanting poems in the shadow of the detention center. Those intimate gatherings formed the basis of what is now a national movement, encompassing multiple organizations and dozens of families.
Two outspoken leaders are the Sadequee sisters, Bangladeshi Americans who have been among the strongest advocates of prisoners’ rights and the most public critics of the government’s targeting of Muslim men—including their brother, Shifa.
From the Streets to the Prayer Rug: Pushing Back Against State Violence
Ehsanul “Shifa” Sadequee was born in Virginia and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the youngest of four siblings in a Bangladeshi-American family. According to his sisters, he was a curious and exceptionally kind child, who by his early teens had grown into a devout and diligent religious scholar.
In 2005, when he was just 18 years old, Shifa traveled to Bangladesh. In April 2006 he got married, but 12 days after his wedding, Bangladeshi authorities took and detained him, apparently at the behest of the U.S. government, for allegedly making false statements to the FBI at John F. Kennedy Airport on his way to Bangladesh the previous year.
Shifa’s sister Sonali, who is based in Atlanta, tells Rewire that this initial charge and arrest, which the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh later deemed a violation of international laws, was a terrifying process for the entire family. For days after Shifa was taken they had no news of his whereabouts. Fears that he would somehow wind up in Guantanamo, ensnared in the web of the “war on terror,” gnawed at the edges of their minds but the family pushed these aside, telling themselves that because Shifa had done nothing wrong, they had nothing to fear. With the phone ringing off the hook and the television on 24/7, they gleaned what scraps of information they could from CNN news reports.
It transpired that upon his arrest in Bangladesh, Shifa was stripped naked, wrapped in plastic, and flown via Alaska to New York, Sonali says, where he spent over three months at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn before being transferred to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Shifa spent more than three years in pretrial solitary confinement before ever being formally charged with a crime, his sister said.
Once Shifa was inside the criminal justice system, Sonali explains, federal authorities quickly dropped the initial charges against him and began to build a case around allegations of material support.
At the heart of the case was Shifa’s renown as an Islamic scholar with a larger-than-life online persona—he had studied classical Arabic and the history of religion as a student in Canada and was a gifted translator, often sharing interpretations of Islamic or political texts on the internet. The Sadequee family says Shifa’s trial was riddled with shortcomings, including the use of previously classified evidence and the selection of jurors who admitted to having anti-Muslim bias—which Human Rights Watch says is a common problem. In addition, the prosecution used Shifa’s ideology as a brush with which to paint him as a fearsome radical, on the verge of carrying out a violent attack on U.S. soil.
Although Shifa, according to Sonali, never engaged in any actions beyond practicing free speech, he was found guilty on four terrorism counts in 2009 and, at the age of 23, sentenced to 17 years in federal prison. He represented himself at the trial, making him one of the first Muslim youth to do so in a national security case, according to his sisters.
Both Sonali and Sharmin Sadequee, who is based in New York, have been mobilizing on his behalf for over a decade. After years of shielding themselves from the backlash of isolation and Islamophobia that invariably accompanies charges of terrorism, the young women have turned their advocacy into an art form.
In an interview with Rewire, Sonali explains that when her brother was arrested, the women in her family developed an organic division of labor that allowed them to form a united front against the horror and uncertainty that had descended on their lives.
“I was already plugged into the social justice community in Atlanta, so I saw my role as tapping into that support network, bringing resources to my family to make sure we all understood the human rights issues involved, ensuring we had the skills to confront the media, which was bombarding us at the time,” she says. Her sister, meanwhile, dealt with the prisons, navigating bureaucratic visitation rules and ensuring Shifa had what he needed on the inside.
“Sharmin and my mother also reached out to the Muslim community, to mosques and other groups,” Sonali continues. “And the rest of the time, my mother was on the prayer rug. I don’t know how many hours she spent kneeling and praying.”
They built a website that is always fresh with the latest news about Shifa’s case and serves as a hub for their activism—they recently announced a letter-writing campaign to mark Ramadan, inviting more than 1,000 followers of a Justice for Shifa Facebook group to send greeting cards to Muslim prisoners. Countless hours are eaten up attending rallies, speaking on panels, or sitting with reporters, patiently unpacking the messy details of Shifa’s case.
The irony is that while the Sadequee sisters make a powerful team, they are constantly called upon to do what they say is the hardest thing of all: relive a time in their lives they would rather forget.
“I don’t like to do these interviews,” Sonali says bluntly. “I don’t enjoy them at all—but I recognize they have to be done. Only by sharing what happened to us, by talking about it, will others learn from it.”
They say they have been trying to create collective responses to state violence resulting from the “war on terror,” and hope to combat the government’s tactics of fear and isolation by building community power and resiliency. But this is easier said than done: Not only must the Sadequees contend with the lingering stigma of Shifa’s trial, but they also, until very recently, had to deal with the trauma of visiting their brother in a prison unit that has been described by former detainees as “Little Gitmo.”
CMUs: “A Religious and Political Quarantine”
Between 2009 and 2015, Shifa was imprisoned in the Communications Management Unit (CMU) at the federal detention center in Terre Haute, Indiana, a segregated portion of the prison comprised almost exclusively of Muslim men that has been the subject of a legal battle since 2010.
This past March, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reinstate a lawsuit the group first filed six years ago challenging CMUs, which the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) quietly ushered into existence under the Bush administration—the first in 2006 in Indiana, and the second in 2008 in Marion, Illinois.
Conditions in these units, which house 60 to 70 prisoners combined, are harsh, according to the CCR: Although inmates are not held in isolation, they are banned from having any physical contact with family members during visits, and their calls are restricted to two per week, each for 15 minutes. By contrast, other BOP inmates are allowed 300 minutes worth of calls every month.
CCR claims the CMUs violate prisoners’ procedural due process rights, and argue that placement in these units is both arbitrary and retaliatory, with Muslim prisoners vastly overrepresented.
“Between 2006 and 2014, about 170 individuals filtered through these units and 101 of them—about 60 percent—were Muslims, even though Muslims only constitute 6 percent of the general federal prison population,” CCR Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol tells Rewire in a phone interview.
CCR reported in 2010 that in Marion, 72 percent of current CMU prisoners were Muslim, a 1,200 percent overrepresentation, while two-thirds of the CMU population in Terra Haute was Muslim, 1,000 percent higher than the national average of Muslim prisoners in federal facilities.
“We are challenging the lack of procedural protections before prisoners are placed in the CMU and also alleging that placement is in retaliation for protected political and religious speech,” Meeropol says, pointing out that inmates in the CMU are seldom given reasons for why they were moved into the units, and are routinely denied opportunities to earn their release into general population.
“CMUs are essentially a religious and political quarantine, the same kind of segregation that has supposedly been outlawed in this country,” she added.
In response to multiple requests for comment about these allegations, Justin Long with the Office of Public Affairs at the Information, Policy and Public Affairs Division for the BOP said in an email to Rewire, “The Bureau of Prisons cannot comment on matters currently in litigation,” and directed Rewire to the Bureau’s web page on CMUs.
In addition to being hard on inmates, Meeropol says CMUs are also “debilitating” for families, especially those with young children who cannot communicate with their fathers through letters, and often cannot understand why they are forced to speak to them through glass, using phones that are monitored by prison staff.
“Several mothers have told me that they’ve stopped bringing their children on visits because it was just too devastating,” Meeropol says.
The Collective Trauma of “Supermax” Prisons and Solitary Confinement
The alternative, some might say, is even worse. All over the country, Muslim prisoners are serving decades-long sentences in solitary confinement, which the United Nations has recognized as a form of torture. Advocates and relatives of terror suspects, or those incarcerated on terrorism charges, have long cried foul over these conditions of confinement, which they say is a form of collective punishment on entire families.
Zurata Duka, whose three sons, Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir were arrested in a manufactured terror plot by the government in 2007, is well aware of the toll of solitary confinement. Her sons have spent dozens of years between them in complete isolation, including long stints at the maximum-security facility in Florence, Colorado.
“My sons are strong—they never let us see them cry, even when their daughters are crying on the other side of the glass,” she says to Rewire. “But once my son Dritan told me he nearly lost his mind in isolation.”
Before his arrest, Zurata tells Rewire, Dritan had been very close with his youngest daughter. Every night he would put her to sleep, stroking her hair and singing lullabies. In those early days after he was taken away, the little girl would lie awake at night, calling out for her father. Unbeknownst to the family, thousands of miles away, Dritan was experiencing something similar.
“He told me, ‘Mom, I don’t know what happened. For three days I just lay there, stroking my pillow, thinking it was [his daughter]. I didn’t know who I was and I don’t know how I came back,’” Zurata recalls him saying.
His daughter was so desperate to see him that one day she penned a note to the president. It read: “Dear Mr. Obama. Today is my birthday. I am five years old. Please, if you can, bring my father back just for one day, so I can hug and kiss him, and then, if you want, you can take him back again.” Zurata says she mailed the letter to the White House. She never heard back.
Almost every family has a similar story. According to Mariam Abu-Ali, conditions of confinement often come up at annual gatherings of affected families, which she organizes in her role as director of the Prisoners and Families Committee at the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.
“About 90 percent of the attendees are women,” she says in a phone interview with Rewire, “and they bring a lot of pain and anxiety into the room. But I’d say the meetings are cathartic,” she adds. “It’s the place where we build bonds with the only people who know what we’re going through.”
Several women who’ve attended the conference in the past tell Rewire they are powerful spaces, offering families a rare chance to speak openly about their lives without fear of being misunderstood, judged, or pitied. It is also a moment for families, particularly women, to share in the collective nature of their trauma, especially the pain of incarceration.
In the 13 years that her brother has served, Mariam says she has come to the painful realization that prisons don’t just lock up individuals—they are a form of bondage on the entire family.
Because Ahmed Omar is imprisoned 1,600 miles from the family’s home in Virginia, in one of the BOP’s maximum-security facilities in Colorado, they only see him once or twice a year. Visits are limited to three family members at a time, meaning Mariam has not seen Ahmed in two years. He reserves his two monthly phone calls for his parents, so she can only hope to talk to him when she visits them. Even these calls are a source of enormous frustration. As she wrote in a recent op-ed:
My mom has spent every Tuesday and Thursday of the last decade, at home, sitting by the phone, patiently waiting for a call that sometimes did not come. And when the call does come, what can one even discuss in 15 minutes? Do you ask him how he’s doing? How can you even ask him how he’s feeling? Do you discuss his prison conditions? His legal case? How do you break the news to him when his aunt or grandfather has passed away?
“What you have to understand is that my brother’s case wasn’t just one devastating ‘moment’ in our lives—it’s a lifelong struggle,” Mariam tells Rewire. “This is not something you ever get used to, or accept. It’s about learning new ways of coping every single day, like living with a chronic illness.”
Each day brings fresh challenges, and tough decisions. For instance, Mariam used to maintain a website, manage a Facebook page, and post daily updates on a Twitter account all relating to her brother’s case. One day she felt she just couldn’t do it anymore.
“At a point you have to ask yourself—do I work full time and provide for my family or do I advocate full time on behalf of my loved one?” she asks. “This work, it’s emotionally draining, it’s a daily struggle and it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the officials whom Shifa Sadequee had been accused of making false statements to. It was FBI officers, not immigration officials.