This article is cross-posted from the blog of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the organizations that led campaigns to ensure that women who had been abused in situations of domestic violence could not be denied insurance based on "pre-existing conditions.
From SEIU: Back
in September, we began a month-long campaign publicizing the fact that
in eight states and Washington, DC, insurance companies could deny
coverage to a victim of domestic violence, citing it as a "pre-existing
condition." Since that time, you’ve blogged, posted on Facebook, and
tweeted about women’s health care. You’ve written over 10,000 letters
to your members of Congress demanding gender equity in health care
reform. You’ve worn t-shirts and handed out information outside
Congressional offices. And now, that work has paid off: the House
health care bill language, released today, includes a clause specifically outlawing the practice of treating domestic violence as a "pre-existing condition."
The House bill states:
SEC. 2754. PROHIBITION ON DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AS PRE-EXISTING CONDITION.
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Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.
A health insurance issuer offering health insurance coverage in the
individual market may not, on the basis of domestic violence, impose
any preexisting condition exclusion (as defined in section
2701(b)(1)(A)) with respect to such coverage.
Yes, there is still a lot of work ahead as both this bill, and the
one from the Senate, moves to the floor for a vote. But, for just a
moment, we can sit back and celebrate the results of our hard work over
the past few months!
In its short existence, the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) has made a name for itself through endless efforts to push Congress further to the right, particularly when it comes to reproductive health. Now with the 2016 election cycle underway, the caucus’ political action committee, the House Freedom Fund, seems to be working just as tirelessly to ensure the caucus maintains a radical anti-choice legacy.
Since its founding by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) in January 2015, the group of ultra-conservative lawmakers that make up the caucus has ballooned from just nine members to at least 36 members, as of October 2015, who have confirmed their own inclusion—though the group keeps its official roster secret. These numbers may seem small, but they pack a punch in the House, where they have enough votes to block major legislation pushed by other parts of the Republican party.
And now, the group is seeking to add to its ranks in order to wield even more power in Congress.
“The goal is to grow it by, and I think it’s realistic, to grow it by 20 to 30 members,” Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), one of HFC’s founding members, told Politico in April. “All new members.”
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While the caucus itself reportedly does not endorse candidates, its unofficial PAC has already thrown money behind defending the seats of some of the group’s most notoriously anti-choice members, as well as a few new faces.
According to OpenSecrets.org, the Center for Responsive Politics’ campaign finance database, thus far in 2016, the House Freedom Fund has invested in seven congressional candidates currently vying to keep a seat in the House of Representatives: Rep. Rod Blum (R-IA), Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA), Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), Rep. Scott Desjarlais (R-TN), Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ).The PAC’s website also highlights two candidates hoping to move from their state legislatures to the House: Republican Indiana state senator Jim Banks and Georgia state Senator Mike Crane. The PAC is also backing the Republican candidate for Florida’s 2nd Congressional District, Mary Thomas; and Republican candidate for North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, Ted Budd.
Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH), who won a special election in early June to replace former House speaker John Boehner, also received funding from the PAC. He joined the House Freedom Caucus that same week.
The Republican Partyactively works to deny access to virtually all forms of reproductive health care, so it is not surprising that the candidates supported by the House Freedom Fund, whose confirmed members are all members of the GOP, share similarly radical views on reproductive rights and health.
Here are some of the House Freedom Fund’s most alarming candidates:
Rep. Rod Blum
Rep. Blum, a freshman congressman from Iowa, considers his opposition to reproductive choice one of the “cornerstones” of his campaign. “It is unconscionable that government would aid in the taking of innocent life. I strongly oppose any federal funding for abortion and I will vote against any of our tax dollars flowing to groups who perform or advocate abortions on demand,” asserts Blum’s campaign site. The Hyde Amendment already bans most federal funding for abortion care.
Blum spent much of his first year in the House attempting to push through a series of anti-choice bills. The representative co-sponsored the medically unsupported Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would have enacted a federal ban on abortion at or beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy, in January 2015. He signed on as a co-sponsor for the failed Life at Conception Act, a so-called personhood measure that would have granted legal rights to fetuses and zygotes, thus potentially outlawing abortion and many forms of contraception, in March of that year. That July, Blum co-sponsored the Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2015, which would have stripped the reproductive health organization of all federal funding for one year so that Congress could investigate it in the wake of the Center for Medical Progress’ (CMP) discredited videos smearing the provider.
Blum’s co-sponsorship of anti-choice legislation was accompanied by a long series of like-minded votes throughout 2015, such as a January vote in favor of the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act of 2015, which, among other things, would have made the Hyde Amendment’s annually renewed ban on most federal funding for abortion care permanent. He also voted to block Washington, D.C.’s Reproductive Health non-discrimination law, and in favor of a measure allowing states to exclude from Medicaid funding any health provider that provided abortions, as well as other anti-choice measures.
Blum’s brief time in Congress has been marked by such extremism that Emily’s List, an organization that works to elect pro-choice women, put Blum on their “On Notice” list in July 2015, signaling their intention to prioritize unseating the Iowa Representative. “In less than five months into the 114th Congress, we have seen Representative Blum lead the crusade to restrict women’s access to healthcare, most notably when he cosponsored a national abortion ban,” explained the organization in a press release on its decision to target Blum. “It’s clear that Congressman Blum is more focused on prioritizing an extreme ideological agenda over enacting policies that benefit more women and families in Iowa’s First Congressional District.”
Rep. Dave Brat
Rep. Dave Brat gained notoriety for his win against incumbent representativeand then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014, a victory considered one of “the biggest political upset[s] in recent memory.” Like many of his HFC colleagues, Brat has co-sponsored several pieces of anti-choice legislation, including the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in 2015 and the Conscience Protection Act of 2016, which claimed to “protect” against “governmental discrimination against providers of health services” who refuse to provide abortion care. Brat’s voting record in Congress earned him a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee.
In April of this year, the Virginia representative signed on to a letter with Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other anti-choice legislators, such as House Freedom Fund candidate Rep. Meadows expressing “serious concerns” about the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to update the label of abortion drug mifepristone to bring it in line with scientific research and evidence-based medicine. Though medication abortions are safe and result in complications in fewer than 0.4 percent of patients, the lawmakers nonetheless claimed that the regulation change could be dangerous, noting that the drug was originally approved during the Clinton administration and demanding a list of information about it.
In the wake of the deadly shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facility in November, when the alleged shooter parroted the same violent rhetoric about the reproductive health organization popularized by the CMP’s discredited videos, many in Congress called for the panel investigating Planned Parenthood to be disbanded and for lawmakers to distance themselves from the videos. Brat, however, saw no reason the anti-choice violence should affect the conservative crusade to shut down access to reproductive health care. “Principles are principles,” Brat said at the time according to the Huffington Post. “They don’t change on a news cycle.”
Rep. Tim Huelskamp
Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp has been an anti-choice advocate since graduate school, when, according to the biography provided on his website, he was “active in assisting women in crisis pregnancies” while working toward a doctoral degree at American University. His advocacy continued as he made his way to Congress, eventually leading him to become the congressional “Pro-Life Caucus” whip.
Though he has cast plenty of anti-choice votes, the congressman’s most notable moment when it comes to reproductive rights may be a 2012 speech on the House floor, in when he compared abortion to slavery and accused Planned Parenthood and the Obama administration of being racist. “Perhaps the biggest war against our liberties is the war that is being waged against those that are not here today, the unborn,” claimed Huelskamp. “Besides slavery, abortion is the other darkest stain on our nation’s character and this president is looking for every way possible to make abortion more available and more frequent. And he wants you to pay for it. Even if you disagree with it.”
Huelskamp went on to falsely accuse Planned Parenthood of targeting people of color. “I am the adoptive father of four children, each of them either Black, Hispanic, Native American, and I am incensed that this president pays money to an entity that was created for the sole purpose of killing children that look like mine; a racist organization and it continues to target minorities for abortion destruction,” said the congressman. “Shame on this president and shame on that party.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Huelskamp exploited race in order to promote his anti-choice agenda. In 2015, the Kansas Representative lashed out at those who accepted awards from Planned Parenthood, tweeting that they were supporting a “racist” agenda.
Rep. Mark Meadows
Rep. Mark Meadows, who has a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life Committee, co-sponsored anti-choice measures such as the House’s 2015 fetal pain bill, the 2015 Life at Conception Act, and the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2016 (PRENDA). He also once badgered a pregnant doctor testifying during a House committee hearing about the importance of offering maternity coverage through the Affordable Care Act. However, the congressman’s recent vendetta against Planned Parenthood stands out the most.
In July 2015, in the wake of CMP’s deceptively edited videos, Meadows latched onto the discredited films in order to justify defunding Planned Parenthood. “In addition to cutting funding for abortion providers, I strongly urge Congress to investigate the legality of the practices engaged in by Planned Parenthood,” said Meadows at the time.
In September, as Congress faced the looming threat of a possible government shutdown if they didn’t pass a budget bill, Meadows exploited the opportunity to push for Planned Parenthood to be defunded, no matter the cost. With the South Carolina congressman leading the charge,pressure from conservatives to pull funding for the reproductive health-care provider played a role in prompting then-House Speaker John Boehner to resign his position. Meadows was a co-sponsor of the Defund Planned Parenthood Act of 2015, which passed in the House as part of a compromise to narrowly escape the shutdown.
But Meadows’ quest to attack Planned Parenthood didn’t end there. In September, the congressman also participated in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s hearing to “examine the use of taxpayer funding” by Planned Parenthood and its affiliates, a sham hearing used by the GOP to repeatedly push misinformation about the organization.
Rep. Scott Desjarlais
Rep. Scott Desjarlais, a medical doctor, is perhaps best known for his attempt to pressure his patient, with whom he was having an affair, into having an abortion when she became pregnant. While the congressman has repeatedly run on his anti-abortion credentials, his divorce papers also revealed he had supported his wife in having two abortions. Politico‘s Chas Sisk labeled DeJarlais “the biggest hypocrite in Congress.”
Desjarlais made headlines again in 2015 for voting for a later abortion ban. A spokesperson for the Tennessee Republican told theTimes Free Press that the vote was in accordance with the congressman’s record:
“Congressman DesJarlais was proud to vote in favor of this legislation,” said his spokesman Robert Jameson, who added that DesJarlais has maintained a “100 percent pro-life voting record” during his five years in Congress and “has always advocated for pro-life values.”
Indiana State Sen. Jim Banks
Indiana state Sen. Jim Banks (R-Columbia City) is one of the few candidates backed by the House Freedom Fund that has yetto win federal office,but his time in the state legislature has given him more than ample opportunity to demonstrate his opposition to reproductive health and rights.
Banks’ campaign website highlights the candidate’s “pro-life” position as a key issue for his race for the House, providing an extensive record of his anti-choice credentials and claiming that he is “running for Congress so that northeast Indiana continues to have a strong voice for innocent lives in Washington, D.C.” That page includes a laundry list of campaign promises, including amending the U.S. Constitution to give a fetus legal human rights, which could outlaw abortion and many forms of contraception; banning federal funding for abortion, though such a ban already exists; eliminating federal funding for any organization that performs abortions domestically or abroad; and opposing any change to the Republican platform on abortion.
The state senator’s site goes on to suggest that “it has been far too long since the Supreme Court discovered that women have a ‘right’ to have an abortion,” lamenting that much of the anti-choice movement’s work to shutter access to abortion in state legislatures hasn’t been replicated on a federal level and promising to address the issue if elected.
Included in his anti-choice resumé is a note that both Banks and his wife have been working in the movement to oppose choice since graduating college, when the two joined Focus on the Family, an organization that has spent millions of dollars promoting its extreme agenda, even devoting $2.5 million to run an anti-abortion ad during the 2010 Super Bowl. The two also worked together on the Allen County Right to Life Board of Directors, and Banks’ wife, Amanda, remains the board’s vice president.
But most extreme of all was the legislation Banks spearheaded while in the state legislature, which included several targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) measures. Most recently the state senator sponsored Indiana’s SB 144, a bill that would modify the state’s 20-week abortion ban to outlaw the procedure once a fetal heartbeat could be detected, typically around six weeks’gestation. In a statement on the bill, Banks claimed the law was needed because it “would protect unborn Hoosiers’ right to life and also includes important women’s health protections.”
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.