Egg-as-Person State Law Campaigns Attract New Faces, Old Radicals

Wendy Norris

The so-called "personhood" movement promoting constitutional rights for fertilized eggs got a fresh shot in the arm in recent days with ballot initiatives gearing up in Florida and renewing efforts in Colorado and Montana. And a host of familiar nationally-known and emerging local activists from hard line anti-abortion groups are leading the new charge to ban abortion, contraception, and other comprehensive reproductive health care.

The so-called "personhood" movement promoting
constitutional rights for fertilized eggs got a fresh shot in the arm in recent
days with ballot initiatives gearing up in Florida and renewing efforts in
Colorado and Montana. And a host of familiar nationally-known and emerging
local activists from hard line anti-abortion groups are leading the new charge
to ban abortion, contraception, and other comprehensive reproductive health
care.

 

Pat McEwen, a veteran of Operation Save America clinic
blockades, is a co-sponsor of the ballot initiative under the aegis Personhood
Florida. She now works with Life Coalition International led by Rev. Keith
Tucci, a close associate of anti-choice zealot Randall Terry.

Tucci is most notorious as Terry’s hand-picked successor to
lead Operation Rescue after his own inner-circle attempted to oust him. Under
Tucci’s command, the group staged a six week long intimidation campaign
targeting Dr. George Tiller’s clinic in Wichita, Kan., in the summer of 1991
that resulted in more than 1,700 arrests. In a 1993 letter to the group’s
supporters, Tucci reportedly wrote, "It is
your God-given right to destroy
any man or woman calling themselves
doctors who willingly slaughter innocent children."

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With Operation Rescue facing federal racketeering charges
Tucci left in 1994 turning it over to another long-time Terry associate, Rev.
Flip Benham, who renamed the group Operation Save America and expanded it to
fight pornography, gay rights and Islam.

When Tiller was assassinated on May 31 by Scott Roeder, an
associate of Troy Newman’s rival Wichita-based group Operation Rescue West, McEwen wrote a vicious press release for Operation Save
America
blaming Tiller for his own death.

McEwen has also been long associated with the Population Research Institute, a virulently
anti-family planning organization that purports to debunk global overpopulation
issues while smearing United Nations Family Planning (UNFPA) and U.S. Agency
for International Aid (USAID) reproductive health programs.

Despite McEwen’s deep associations in the antiabortion movement,
Personhood Florida has an uphill battle. The Tampa Tribune reports that the
group will need to "collect 676,811
petition signatures by Feb. 1
for its proposal to make the 2010
ballot."

Prominent state politicians are already distancing
themselves from the proposed state Constitutional amendment that would define a
person as "from the beginning of the biological development of that human
being."

The group is expected to file the measure with the Florida
Secretary of State following a Sept. 11 kick-off rally in Tallahassee.

By all accounts, the Florida group appears to be mimicking
its Colorado personhood forerunner last year — build a coalition from a
tight-knit group of people who oppose comprehensive reproductive health care to
lead the drive and count on the American Life League to bankroll the effort.

And already those purse strings appear to be getting
stretched quite thin. 

Personhood USA, the national coordinating campaign, claims
it has launched 27 state initiatives, including a second try to radically
change the Colorado Constitution. At the same time, the Statesman notes that
the 2010 Colorado personhood ballot is aiming to run as an all-volunteer
effort
— a curious and politically risky strategy considering how much
money the national groups, like ALL, have proven they can raise.

The latest Colorado attempt also includes the newly tweaked
language avoiding the term "fertilized egg" for the more ambiguous
"from the beginning of biological development" that was suggested to
the foiled 2008 activists by Georgetown U. bioethicist Dianne Irving.

After inexplicably kicking off the petition drive Aug. 25 at
a non-descript Denver post office, the group has since fanned out at the
heavily-trafficked Colorado State Fair and popular "Taste of
Colorado" festival to begin collecting 76,000 valid petition signatures by
the Feb. 15 deadline.

While the two co-sponsors of the Colorado proposal, ALL’s
former legislative analyst Gualberto Garcia Jones and Colorado Right to Life
activist Leslie Hanks
were previously profiled by Rewire, the
Montana proponents whose Constitutional ballot language was approved Sept. 3
have a much lower national profile.

Kalispell physician Annie Bukacek, president of the Montana
ProLife Coalition, will be going it alone with support from the Personhood USA
mothership. The Great Falls Tribune reports that Montana Right to Life, Montana
Catholic Conference and other anti-abortion groups oppose the statewide
personhood strategy
as an overly broad and ineffective legal tactic for
ending abortion.

Like its Rocky Mountain neighbor Colorado, the Montana group
will also not employ paid petition circulators to collect the approximately
40,000 voter signatures needed by July 2010 to qualify for the ballot. Its
first all-volunteer effort in 2008 to change the state Constitution, fell
nearly 50 percent short of its signature goal.

But the first real test of the new-and-improved personhood
movement will occur in Mississippi where activists are working to beat an Oct.
1 deadline to collect 90,000 petition signatures. How the campaign is
progressing is anybody’s guess.

There’s been a virtual news blackout of the group’s efforts
since late July when it was reported by state bloggers that Personhood
Mississippi had just one-third of the total signatures needed. Even Jackson,
Miss., evangelical activist and father of nine Les Riley, who’s heading up the
group, stopped writing about the petition drive on his own blog months ago. His
more pressing interest now seems to be organizing and speaking at conservative
Tea Party protests.

In a wide ranging interview Colorado
Personhood supporter and Christian talk show host Bob Enyart
— whose
long-running feud with Focus on the Family’s James Dobson for not being
anti-abortion enough is the stuff of local legend — talked to Riley in April.

Said Enyart to Riley, a
one-time ultra-conservative Constitution Party candidate, "So many
pro-lifers over a period of 30 years have been taught, by example National
Right to Life. ‘Don’t mention God. Don’t quote the Bible. We’re going to win
this on the laws of science.’ But the problem with that, Les, is the laws of
science don’t use the terms right and wrong. By the laws of science, you can’t
prove that the Holocaust was wrong. So right and wrong come from God."

Look for more state updates on
the personhood movement in the coming weeks.

Analysis Human Rights

Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism: A Daily Struggle for Muslim Women

Kanya D’Almeida

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.

Because cases based on material support statutes tend to paint the accused as extremely dangerous persons, they are often accompanied by harsh conditions of confinement, both pretrial and following a conviction.

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 Times article 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.

Analysis Violence

Spiritual Salvation: The New Excuse for Violence and Threats Against Abortion Providers

Jessica Mason Pieklo

"Anything I can do to help protect people who are trying to provide services to women I was willing to do,” said Dr. Mila Means in an interview with Rewire, after the close of Angel Dillard's trial for writing her a threatening letter in 2011. “And I just had no idea it would turn into this.”

In 2009, Scott Roeder murdered Dr. George Tiller, leaving Wichita, Kansas, without an abortion provider. A full year would pass before local physician Dr. Mila Means considered stepping in to start offering abortions. She began training to offer the procedure as part of her Wichita practice—largely because nobody else was doing so.

“That was a big issue. Patients in need of services and not able to get them,” said Means in an interview with Rewire last week.

“I had someone who sought me out, who I only met once …. She had two children and was early on [in her pregnancy] and wanted a medical abortion,” said Means. “And I said ‘Well, I can’t do that here,’ and tried to refer her to Kansas City. But there was no way she could get away from her husband or anything to be able to get care,” Means continued.

“And that was really a big part of my thought: ‘Well, somebody’s got to do something in this city.'”

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Means has been tied up in litigation for the last five years because of a letter she received in January 2011 from a woman named Angel Dillard, who warned Means that should she go through with her plans, thousands of people across the country would be looking into her background to learn her habits and routines, and that Means would be checking under her car every day for explosives. That letter attracted the attention of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which sued Dillard under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. Last Friday, Wichita jurors sent a very dangerous message to the anti-choice movement where Dillard’s case was concerned: Present your threat to abortion providers as an attempt at spiritual salvation, and the law will look the other way.

The eight-person Sedgwick County jury concluded that Dillard’s January 15, 2011 letter, which also referenced Tiller speaking to Means from hell, constituted a “true threat.” In other words, that letter was a threat and not automatically protected free speech, as Dillard and her attorneys had argued.

But the jury also found that while it was reasonable for Means to feel threatened given the reference to Tiller’s murder, the car bomb mention, and so on, those threats were not enough to warrant any of the civil damages the DOJ had asked for on Means’ behalf, or the protective order the agency had asked for keeping Dillard away from Means.

See, Dillard’s evangelical Christianity included an angry God, a vengeful God, explained her attorney Craig Shultz to jurors in his closing argument. Dillard is a strong woman with strong beliefs who uses strong words to persuade others like Means, to change their ways, he said—in other words, her letter was just an example of those strong words.

“The letter was intimidating, but it was a more spiritual threat, a more emotional threat,” presiding juror and Wichita native Adam Cox, 37, told Rewire in an interview following the verdict. “It was not a threat of physical violence … and therefore it did not violate the law.”

This distinction—between spiritual violence and physical violence—is exactly the cover the radical anti-choice movement has sought from the law for decades. And that’s exactly what the Dillard jury gave them when they found Dillard not liable for threatening Means out of providing abortions in Wichita. Although the circumstances of the cases are obviously different, the idea that being spiritually compelled toward the threat of violence should be enough to excuse that threat in the court of law echoes the reasoning used by other anti-choice extremists.

It’s a mutation of the legal theory of justifiable homicide, the idea that an act like murder is legally excusable in some circumstances because it’s preventing a greater evil—in this case, legal abortion. That’s what Paul Hill used to try to justify his murder of abortion provider Dr. John Britton and Britton’s bodyguard in 1994.

Like Dillard, Paul Hill considered himself a minister.

It’s the same argument Roeder used during his trial for killing Dr. Tiller. It’s the same position advocated by Roeder associate and self-proclaimed minister Michael Bray, convicted in 1985 for possessing explosives and conspiring to blow up abortion clinics.

While Roeder, Hill, and Bray were convicted for their crimes, each, like Dillard, attempted to cloak their conduct in the guise of being called by God to act.

And this is the same line of thinking self-proclaimed Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter Robert Lewis Dear Jr. has said he will use to defend himself should he be determined competent to stand trial.

When Dear was initially detained by law enforcement following the shooting, and throughout his legal proceedings so far, he has consistently made anti-choice statements. He’s repeated the idea that Planned Parenthood is “selling baby parts,” the same argument made by the anti-choice Center for Medical Progress and its founders David Daleiden and Operation Rescue’s Troy Newman, spread by heavily edited videos, and repeated ad nauseam by conservative lawmakers looking to stir up their base in a particularly ugly election cycle.

Dear faces a total of 179 counts, including murder and attempted murder, from the five-hour standoff. The hearing to determine his competency to stand trial continues May 10. In the first phase of that hearing last month, prosecutors portrayed Dear as a man with deeply held religious and political convictions, which they said motivated Dear to hold siege at the reproductive health-care facility and eventually kill three. It is those very same sincerely held religious beliefs and a paranoia that the federal government is persecuting Christians that, Dear’s defense team argues, rise to the level of a diagnosable delusional disorder, rendering him incompetent to stand trial. According to the detective on Dear’s case, Dear wants to raise a “defense of others” argument—in other words, again, the legal argument that a crime is justified to prevent a greater evil.

Dillard’s attorneys argued she was simply preaching the path to redemption for Means, and not sending out a larger call to action against her.

But the truth of the matter is that Dillard’s statements were enough to give seasoned domestic terrorism law enforcement officers a reason to visit Dillard—twice, as one investigator testified at Dillard’s trial. They looked Dillard up in their internal network to find they already had a flag on her for links to abortion extremist Roeder.

In other words, in 2011 and at the moment the FBI was sent in to investigate, as best as the evidence showed, Means was to be the next big target of anti-choice violence. And the only reason she wasn’t was because the portion of FACE that is designed to prevent acts of violence from happening actually worked. The DOJ responded, potentially preventing an act of abortion terrorism that would have caused physical harm. It really doesn’t matter that they declined to pursue a criminal case against Dillard, a point her attorneys tried to emphasize during trial. The DOJ still brought a civil case. And civil cases are expensive to bring, which means lawyers must also consider how much money the case is worth. It sounds crass, but it’s true; it’s not profit, it’s penalties and damages. In Dr. Mila Means’ case, those were valued at approximately $20,000. For civil cases, that’s rarely, if ever, enough for an agency to justify spending five years of resources. And still, the DOJ went in hard. That alone suggests this case means more than any $20,000 verdict for Means. This case, in terms of anti-choice violence, was and remains significant.

Means never ended up developing an abortion practice, a fact she ascribes to the impossibly anti-choice political and cultural climate of Kansas. “What happened was two-pronged,” explained Means in an interview after the close of the trial but before the verdict. One issue, she said, stemmed from when the Kansas legislature “passed the TRAP laws.”

In 2011, Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed a series of anti-choice restrictions, including ones similar to those passed in Texas that are currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. Those regulations, like hospital admitting privileges requirements and strict architectural requirements, have since been blocked by a federal court.

“I felt like, as an individual trying to fund getting started … there was no way I could have an ambulatory surgical center, and there’s still no guarantee that the doctors in this town will get [admitting] privileges,” Means said.

And then there was the other “prong”: Word had gotten out to the local anti-choice community that Means was training to expand her practice to provide abortions for patients who needed them. In addition to the added anticipated costs related to Kansas’ TRAP laws, Means had to consider security costs.

“As things progressed, I became much more aware of how expensive security was going to be,” said Means. For example, early in the process of attempting to expand her practice to include abortion services, Means attended a meeting with area providers. According to Means, security for that approximately two-hour meeting cost about $800.

Kansas needs abortion doctors. But Means is hesitant to recommend people come in and try and take up the work. “Only if they are prepared for it to be their whole life,” she said.

“The person that I trained with, he was in his 70s,” said Means. “I’m thinking that potentially our future providers are going to be physicians who have raised their kids, done their other kind of work, that still want to give, and are willing to crawl into a hole.”

That’s because, Means noted, violence against abortion providers is increasingly normalized. “The threats work,” said Means.

Means was pessimistic about the outcome of her case and concerned about the ripple effect such a decision could have for inspiring other threats of violence against abortion providers. “If we can’t even get people to look at [Dillard’s communication to Means] and say there’s something different here, how can we get proactive legislation [to protect providers]?” she wondered.

“Anything I can do to help protect people who are trying to provide services to women I was willing to do,” said Means. “And I just had no idea it would turn into this.”

The next day, the jury decision came down.

The jury found Dillard to be a threat. They just weren’t convinced she was enough of threat. That’s because the letter was sold as part of Dillard’s fire-and-brimstone spiritual redemption, the kind she could have been learning from Scott Roeder and Michael Bray.

Thankfully, Dillard’s case doesn’t hold much broad legal precedent, because it’s limited to the battle between Dillard, Means, and the DOJ. The DOJ could try and appeal the verdict, but it is a steep hill to climb. There are limited legal grounds to appeal in any case. Even with the problematic evidentiary rulings regarding Dillard’s purported prison ministry to Roeder and the inherent conflict between the jury finding Dillard’s letter to be a true threat but not enough of one, the DOJ has a lot of cases. The agency has to evaluate if, after five years of effort dedicated to pursing the case against Dillard, it is worth continuing. It’s a sobering reality for abortion rights advocates.

In the meantime, what that verdict shows is not just how ingrained radical Christian anti-choice sentiment is in places like Wichita, but how it is metastasizing into the law: Dillard wasn’t threatening Means’ physical well-being. She was just preaching. This was not about death to Means. It was about salvation.

The jury bought it.

The First Amendment protects the ugliest of speech. But it also demands accountability from speakers. That accountability is never about manners, or as Dillard’s attorneys claimed during her trial, shutting down abortion-related speech with which the government disagrees. It is always about whether that speech puts the safety of others in jeopardy.

Except when it’s not. When it’s speech outside abortion clinics directed at patients, abortion doctors, and clinic staff. Or when it’s women facing online death threats by former partners. Or when they are “spiritual threats” to car bomb abortion providers. Then that accountability and safety balance gets all out of whack. Inevitably, women’s lives are put in the cross-hairs.

“All of these people continue to embolden each other,” Means said.

She is exactly right. It is no coincidence that Dear shouted about “no more baby parts” at his arrest in Colorado, months after Daleiden and Newman began releasing videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue. Make no mistake about it: Abortion doctors are and will continue to be the main targets of the violent anti-choice right. But as the attack on Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood proved, if you go to a reproductive health-care facility, you are a potential target.

All of these people embolden each other. And a jury in Wichita just gave them another push.