Weekly global roundup: Saudi women left on the Olympics sidelines; Lebanese activists demand marital rape laws; WHO says injectables still safe to use; Ugandan women trafficked to Malaysia; and a fatal witchcraft accusation in Nepal.
Welcome to our new Weekly Global Reproductive Justice Roundup! Each week, reporter Jessica Mack will summarize reproductive and sexual health and justice news from around the world. We will still report in depth on some of these stories, but we want to make sure you get a sense of the rest and the best.
International Olympic Committee to Saudi Arabia: Where Are the Women? Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to put the screws on Saudi Arabia, one of just three countries that has yet to field any women for the Olympic games. The other two countries, Brunei and Qatar, have either vowed to send women to London this summer or are struggling to send anyone to the Olympics. Saudi Arabia has no excuse, HRW says, and by not pushing them to field women the IOC is violating its own principles on gender equality. A researcher for HRW called women’s participation in sports a “wedge issue” for other women’s rights – a hefty claim in a country where women lack even the ability to drive and vote in most elections. Read HRW’s full report on the denial of women and girls in sport in Saudi Arabia here. Via Daily Beast.
Activists in Lebanon: Husbands Can “Legally Rape” Wives Women’s rights activists in Lebanon demonstrated last week against domestic violence in the country, and the lack of laws to protect women. The group, called STOP Violence Against Women included 300 activists wielding signs with slogans like, “he will legally rape you,” (referring the country’s lack of marital rape law) and “All marriages are sacred, but not all are safe.” A draft law addressing violence against women – the first of its kind and drafted by the NGO Kafa – has stagnated in Parliament since April 2010 and the committee reviewing it has already removed a clause on marital rape. Said one of the committee’s (male) MPs: “There’s nothing called rape between a husband and a wife. It’s called forcing someone violently to have intercourse.” Um, sure. Video of the demonstration available here. Via The Daily Star.
WHO Stays the Course on Injectables, Despite Potential HIV Risks After a much-discussed January meeting where WHO and a group of experts reviewed evidence suggesting that injectable contraception may double the risk of HIV, WHO has remained firm in their decision that injectables are still safe to use. The panel weighed the potential risk of increased HIV transmission and contraction (suggested by some studies, though not by others) against the risk to women if injectable contraception were unavailable. The method is one of the most popular in the developing world, because it is discreet, long-lasting, and affordable. Without it, unintended pregnancy rates would almost certainly spike and maternal mortality rates in Africa and South Asia are already the highest in the world. This proved a more sobering – and concrete – fact to consider. In the mean time, more studies on HIV risks are planned. Via Guardian.
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Are More Ugandan Women Being Trafficked to Malaysia? The International Organization of Migration (IOM) is concerned about an increased number of Ugandan women being trafficked to Asia. There are anecdotal reports (though no studies) of rape, torture, and sexual coercion, and a raid in Malaysia at the end of 2011 substantiated some of these reports. The APis reporting the story with the unfortunate headline “Ugandan Women Tricked into Malaysia Sex Work.” The lure of steady work is a major reason that women migrate, of their own accord or sometimes by the coercion of others, across borders. The issue is highly complex, and media coverage often simplifies the story to the detriment of the women themselves, who lose agency and dignity in the process. Other headlines include “Hundreds of Ugandan Women Trapped in Malaysia”. Human trafficking is a very real and critical issue, but coverage that obscures the underlying issues and disrespects its subjects won’t really help. Via Voice of America.
In Nepal, Accusation of Witchcraft Justifies Horrific Violence After a Shaman accused her of casting a spell to induce illness, a mother of two was attacked and burned alive by a mob, which included family members. This horrific act is part of a disturbing pattern of violence carried out against women. Shamans and healers are used often for illness and spiritual traditions across the country, but women’s advocates say they also pray on innocent women with accusations of witchcraft, inciting sometimes fatal violence. In 2007, a woman was badly beaten following the accusation that she used black magic to cause a girl in her village to become ill.
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.
This is the first article in Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in the series here.
For the past 15 years, stories of Muslim Americans arrested on terrorism charges have been splashed across newspapers and television screens.
Less visible, and largely hidden behind the headlines, are the families of the accused. Numbering in the hundreds, these families are living under a dark shadow, often in obscurity and sometimes in poverty, following trials and convictions that brand them and their relations as “terrorists.”
They say the label is heavy with stigma, almost impossible to shake.
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For well over a decade they’ve been challenging discriminatory policing, unfair trials, and draconian sentencing of Muslims charged under terrorism laws passed in the aftermath of 9/11. A once-scattered population of fractured families and organizations working on their behalf has coalesced into a movement, in which activists, lawyers, and scholars are all standing shoulder to shoulder with impacted families under the banner No Separate Justice (NSJ).
The movement’s leaders, by and large, are Muslim women.
One of them is Zurata Duka, an ethnic Albanian immigrant from Macedonia whose sons Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir were arrested in 2007 on conspiracy charges. Zurata lives in a quiet suburban neighborhood in New Jersey with her husband, surrounded by their grandchildren. But her charming home and easy smile belie the fallout from her sons’ arrest, which laid waste to their dream of putting out roots and building a sturdy future for themselves in America.
The Duka brothers now count among hundreds of people, primarily Muslims, prosecuted for terrorist activity since September 11, 2001. The precise number is difficult to ascertain, but a 2014 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report estimated that in the decade between 2001 and 2011, the federal government convicted approximately 500 individuals of terrorism, amounting to about 40 per year.
Informants, paid and unpaid, played a critical role in at least half of these cases, the report found. High-ranking government officials like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) also used these cases for their own political gain, according to reports. Often, allegations of terrorism have prompted the arrests of Muslim Americans like the Duka brothers, based on wholly fabricated plots, trumped up by federal authorities eager to show they are combating “homegrown terrorism.”
For the Duka family and many others, the HRW report only echoed what they’d known for years: that the FBI’s post-9/11 counterterrorism machine has slowly eaten away at Muslim Americans’ civil liberties and constitutional protections.
According to organizers with NSJ, this erosion amounts to what is essentially a separate justice system for Muslim Americans, one that runs parallel to the protections enshrined in the Constitution, and one that appears to equate adherence to the Islamic faith with a propensity toward violence.
In a three-part series, Rewire will share some of their stories and explore how multiple intersecting issues converge around allegations of terrorism in post-9/11 America.
An Accidental Advocate
Zurata Duka arrived in the United States in 1984 with her husband Firik and their three sons.
They moved around, living first in Texas and then in New York City, where the family added two members, a daughter named Naze and a fourth son, Burim. Eventually they bought a house in a mixed-ethnic, suburban neighborhood in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, which Zurata and Firik believed was a safer choice for their kids than Brooklyn, where they often came home bloodied or bruised from fights with other boys, according to the Intercept.
They did well, establishing two successful roofing businesses, which counted department stores, schools, and even the local fire department among their clients. To all who knew them, they were the veritable poster family for the American dream: self-made, hardworking, prosperous.
All that changed on May 7, 2007—Zurata Duka’s 49th birthday—when a team of armed FBI agents burst into her home screaming at her to get down on the ground.
She conjures up the incident like it was yesterday: “I was washing the dishes,” she tells Rewire in an interview in her home, “when I heard this sound like a bomb. I grabbed a chair because I saw people running in, and got behind the refrigerator. People were yelling at me to put the chair down, and then I felt a gun in my stomach.”
She recalls begging to be allowed to put on her head cover, and requesting a female agent to handcuff her. For hours she sat in the kitchen while the team ransacked her house. One agent seemed particularly agitated, she says, running up and down the stairs and asking repeatedly about her sons’ whereabouts.
Zurata says the years following her sons’ arrest have been a blur of caring for her grandkids and fretting over bills. The family’s roofing businesses, which once enjoyed six-figure earnings, have fallen on hard times, with only her youngest son Burim and her husband (who is pushing 70) to run them. An increasingly tight household budget also means that visits with her sons, who are flung across the country in various federal detention centers—Dritan in West Virginia, Shain in Kentucky, and Eljvir in a maximum-security prison in Colorado—are nearly impossible.
Zurata is also an advocate—though she never uses that word. Over the past eight years she has cultivated a close circle of allies who raise awareness and organize around her sons’ case. She herself has traveled the country speaking publicly on their behalf, often with her oldest grandchild in tow.
A “Separate” Justice System for Muslim Americans
The No Separate Justice movement began in 2009 as a campaign around a Pakistani-American student named Fahad Hashmi, who at the time was being held in pretrial solitary confinement on terrorism-related charges. Over time, it formed a kind of umbrella over various groups and families who were challenging post-9/11 human rights abuses.
These included organizations working against police surveillance, like the City University of New York’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility project; Palestinian rights’ groups like Al-Awda NY; the direct-action collective Witness Against Torture, whose aim is to shut down the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo; Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), an organization of South Asian workers and youth; and nonprofits like the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).
Among them these groups’ members have decades of experience organizing around civil liberties, but the movement’s most active participants are women like Zurata Duka, many of whom had never known a day’s activism until the state snatched away their kin.
The FBI first learned of the Dukas in 2006 when an employee at a Circuit City in Cherry Hill turned over tapes of what appeared to be Muslim men shooting guns in the woods while saying “Allahu Akbar,” Arabic for “God is Greatest.” The Dukas themselves had recorded that footage while on a family vacation in the Pocono Mountains, where they’d also ridden horses and gone skiing. What had started out as a weekend of winter sports turned into a lengthy FBI investigation: Over a period of several months, the bureau went to great lengths to involve the men in a plot to attack the Fort Dix military base in New Jersey, enlisting two informants to secure recordings of the brothers’ support for the scheme.
As the Intercept detailed in a January 2015 piece titled “Christie’s Conspiracy”—about how Chris Christie, then the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, rose to prominence in the wake of Zurata’s sons’ arrest and subsequent trial—the informants never approached the Duka brothers directly about this plan, instead attempting to incite vague verbal commitments to acts of violence by showing them jihadi videos and playing tapes of lectures by radical Islamic scholars. Court transcripts and video recordings have shown that all three men explicitly rejected the idea of engaging in violence, repeatedly telling one informant, Besnik Bakalli, that “jihad” for them meant working hard to support their families, or fighting personal vices like greed and lust.
It is clear from the criminal complaint that the only link between the Duka brothers and the Fort Dix plot was a series of statements that Eljvir’s brother-in-law, Mohamad Shnewer, made to another paid FBI informant, Mahmoud Omar, in which he falsely claimed that the Dukas had agreed to the plan. These claims were subsequently disproved in court, according to the Intercept, when Omar admitted during cross-examination that the Duka brothers had no idea about the alleged plot to kill military personnel at the Navy base.
Though the prosecution was unable to provide proof of a formal agreement—written, oral, or otherwise—that showed the Duka brothers had entered into a conspiracy to attack the military base, the jury delivered a guilty verdict. Both Dritan and Shain received life sentences plus 30 years. Eljvir was sentenced to life without parole.
In January, they presented a motion for retrial based on ineffective counsel before New Jersey District Judge Robert B. Kugler, the same man who presided over the original trial and sentenced the brothers back in 2009. The case is still pending.
As the HRW report makes clear, the Duka brothers’ story is not an anomaly. By analyzing the U.S. Department of Justice’s public records, as well as data secured through Freedom of Information Act requests, HRW concluded:
All of the high-profile domestic terrorism plots of the last decade, with four exceptions, were actually FBI sting operations—plots conducted with the direct involvement of law enforcement informants or agents, including plots that were proposed or led by informants. According to multiple studies, nearly 50 percent of the more than 500 federal counterterrorism convictions resulted from informant-based cases; almost 30 percent of those cases were sting operations in which the informant played an active role in the underlying plot.
In some cases, the report found, the FBI “may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by conducting sting operations that facilitated or invented the target’s willingness to act.”
Sting operations are the cornerstone of a legal strategy that groups like the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF) have termed “preemptive prosecution,” which essentially licenses the government to charge and incarcerate Muslims who have never committed a crime on the basis that their very thoughts pose a threat to national security.
Preemptive prosecutions have given rise to a troubling pattern of innocent persons being incarcerated and families being separated, often in cases manufactured entirely by the government. Experts on “homegrown terrorism” say the alleged fear driving the counterterrorism machine is exaggerated. According to Peter Bergen, author of the United States of Jihad, the risk of “homegrown terrorism” is actually a lower-level threat than the dangers of gun violence or climate change.
In the years after September 11, the New York Times reported Bergen as saying, “an American residing in the United States was around five thousand times more likely to be killed by a fellow citizen armed with a gun than by a terrorist inspired by the ideology of Osama bin Laden.”
As the NCPCF documented in a 2014 report, preemptive prosecutions often involve material support charges, which allow the government to interpret free speech or charitable giving as “support” for international terrorist organizations; the use of conspiracy laws to treat relationships and associations as criminal enterprises, and their members as guilty by association; and the use of confidential informants to ensnare individuals in criminal plots fabricated by the government.
NCPCF Legal Director Kathy Manley told Rewire in a phone interview that of an estimated 399 terrorism cases between 2001 and 2010, approximately 94.2 percent were preemptive prosecutions, or included elements of that strategy.
By analyzing a list of the Department of Justice National Security Division’s unsealed terrorism cases, NCPCF researchers concluded that 72.4 percent of convictions between 2001 and 2010 were based on suspicion of the defendant’s “perceived ideology,” rather than criminal behavior, while a further 21.8 percent of cases represented individuals whose non-terrorist criminal activity was “manipulated and inflated by the government to appear as though they were terrorists,” according to the report.
Families like the Dukas say the legal terminology doesn’t come close to capturing the chilling reality that lurks beneath it: that the federal government is willing to tear asunder scores of Muslim-American families—whose members may have done nothing more than fire guns at a shooting range while evoking God’s name—under the guise of fighting the elusive threat of “homegrown terrorism.”
NCPCF is now in the process of filing commutation petitions—appeals for executive clemency—on behalf of ten victims of preemptive prosecution. One of these petitions, Manley told Rewire, involves a man named Shahawar Matin Siraj who was convicted in 2006 on terrorism conspiracy charges and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Matin’s story represents a classic case of preemptive prosecution and illustrates how this legal strategy affects entire families.
Turning Mothers Into Advocates
Shahina Parveen lives with her husband, Siraj Abdul Rehman, and their daughter, Sanya Siraj, in Jackson Heights, a bustling immigrant quarter of Queens, New York. Anyone who has visited them knows the apartment is not so much a home as it is a workspace dedicated to exposing the truth behind the case that changed their lives a decade ago.
“You see all this?” Parveen asks, pointing to a stack of books and papers stashed in a corner of the one-bedroom apartment. “This is my office. I have read 4,000 pages about my son’s case. It’s all lies.”
She tells Rewire that when she moved her family from Pakistan to the United States in 1999, escaping daily violence in her native city of Karachi, she couldn’t read or speak much English. But when the NYPD sent an informant after her son in 2003 and then arrested him for allegedly plotting to blow up a train station in Manhattan in 2004, she forced herself to learn so she could understand how Matin—who had always seemed “more interested in video games than in religion”—had been labeled a terrorist.
Through reading court transcripts and watching C-SPAN, she learned the details of how an Egyptian-American NYPD informant named Osama Eldawoody befriended her son by posing as a terminally ill man with a deep knowledge of Islam. Over several months, Eldawoody exposed Matin to the results of the United States’ military exploits overseas, showing him photographs of abused Muslim prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison complex in Iraq and eventually suggesting that they detonate a bomb at the 34th Street station.
Though Matin refused to plant the bomb in the subway, Eldawoody pressured him into acting as a lookout for the operation, she says. According to a report by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at the New York University School of Law, Matin appeared to grow more and more reluctant with the plan, at one point telling the informant he needed to “ask permission” from his mother before going any further.
At his trial, the report states, the prosecution sidelined Matin’s reluctance to participate in the plot and highlighted instead what they called his ”predisposition” toward the crime. The predisposition argument makes it virtually impossible for a defendant to invoke the entrapment defense—an affirmative defense in cases where the government induces a particular crime, through an informant or other means—because the burden is on defendants to prove that they lacked the predisposition toward certain criminal conduct. In terrorism cases, disproving predisposition is a particularly arduous task, given the triggering effects of terrorism cases, which often involve, according to advocates, federal prosecutors inciting jurors’ emotions by presenting evidence of the human toll of other, unrelated terrorist attacks.
According to the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, the entrapment defense has yet to succeed in court.
A jury found Matin guilty and sentenced him to 30 years. He is currently held at the Federal Correctional Institution at Otisville in upstate New York.
For Parveen, the trauma resulting from his arrest and lengthy trial has been constant.
“The government made us beggars,” she tells Rewire, explaining that much of the Muslim community and large swathes of her own family shunned them after her son’s arrest. She remembers walking the streets trying to solicit funds to pay legal fees; she recalls her daughter, Sanya, being told by prospective employers: “No one will hire the sister of a terrorist.” Neighbors who’d lived side by side with the family for 15 years refused to even step inside their apartment.
“At one point, I was paralyzed from the trauma,” Sanya tells Rewire. “One half of my body just stopped working.”
One of Parveen’s clearest memories of that period is her family being arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials the day after Matin’s sentencing—possibly in connection with their pending appeal on a political asylum claim—and the 11 nights they spent in an immigrant detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
“I saw with my own eyes how human beings are treated in detention centers. I saw a young woman being physically separated from her newborn baby, and it was like watching my own son being torn away from me,” she explained. One day, inexplicably, immigration officials separated Sanya from her mother and kept them apart for two days. Parveen remembers spending sleepless nights in the detention center, crying, and praying, until suddenly something inside her snapped.
“I had been quiet for three years, from the day my son was arrested until he was sentenced,” she says. “And I was still being abused. I told myself if I am going to be abused even when I’m silent, then I might as well speak out about his case.”
It was the beginning of a long commitment to activism that continues to this day. Through DRUM, Parveen joined the No Separate Justice campaign. She is a powerful orator, and though she personally dislikes the spotlight, she has become a prominent face in the movement against post-9/11 civil rights violations.
She attends vigils and protests. She marches at May Day rallies, keeping alive the call of justice for Muslim prisoners like her son. She is always a phone call away, ready to answer questions about Matin’s case, or talk for hours into the night about his “rubbish” trial. She is quick to get her hands on the latest literature relating to the national security state: She piles books, reports, and clippings from newspapers onto her fragile hopes that one day her family will be vindicated.
“Before my father died, he told me that this was my job now,” Parveen tells Rewire. “He said, ‘Nobody else is going to do this for you—you’re the only one who can fight for your son. I pray that people will show up and support you, but you’re the mother and you have to fight, even on days when you’re fighting alone.’”
She says he died the day before his grandson, Matin, lost his appeal. It was almost as if he knew, Parveen says, that they stood no chance.
“But the last time I spoke to him he told me, ‘No day is the same. Sooner or later, the sun has to rise. You have to fight until the sun rises for Matin—you have to stand; don’t fall.’”