News Human Rights

Advocates, Attorneys Demand Answers After Muslim Prisoner’s Attempted Suicide

Kanya D’Almeida

An attorney for the Muslim prisoner Ahmed Ferhani says that if her client dies, the New York City Police Department will “have his blood on their hands,” adding that the department went to great lengths to entrap Ferhani in a plot fabricated by the government.

About 50 people with placards bearing the name Ahmed Ferhani rallied outside the headquarters of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) on Tuesday evening, demanding a response to the recent in-custody suicide attempt by a 30-year-old Algerian American in the Attica Correctional Facility.

Holding signs that read “Justice for Ahmed” and “Stop Racial, Ethnic and Religious Profiling,” speaker after speaker came forward to piece together a picture of a Muslim man who, advocates and attorneys say, was ensnared by the NYPD in a terror plot. The police used a confidential informant to involve Ferhani in a bogus scheme to blow up synagogues in New York.

Ferhani is in a coma after trying to hang himself in prison last week.

In a series of letters exchanged with John Knefel, a correspondent for the Nation, Ferhani detailed a pattern of abuse at the hands of prison guards, both at the notorious Attica prison and at the Great Meadow Correctional Facility where he was previously held. Ferhani, who pleaded guilty to multiple counts of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism and hate crimes, was sentenced in 2013 to ten years in prison. He claims the guards singled him out for his religious beliefs and his terrorism conviction.

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Ferhani, in the months leading up to his suicide attempt, penned increasingly desperate dispatches to a number of people, including multiple letters sent to Attorney General Loretta Lynch about systematic abuse leaving him in a fragile mental state, the Nation reported.

“I want everyone to know that the next time I am violated by correction officers or their supervisors I will take my own life,” Ferhani wrote. “If taking my own life is the only way to expose the evils that are practiced daily by corrections officers then I will be glad to do it.”

These “evils,” according to Ferhani, ran the gamut from denial of food, water, and library services, to physical assault and sexual harassment by the guards.

Advocates from Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), the organization that co-sponsored Tuesday’s rally along with Al-Awda New York and Ferhani’s lawyers, told Rewire that Ferhani complained of guards tampering with his mail and destroying his personal and religious property.

True to his word, Ferhani tried to end his life on the morning of April 7 by hanging himself in his cell.

His lawyers say he is now lying in a medically induced coma. In an email to Rewire, a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) stated that Ferhani “has been transferred to an outside hospital and remains in the custody of Attica Correctional Facility,” but declined to comment on the cause of his transfer or the allegations of abuse.

For Fahd Ahmed, DRUM’s executive director, the DOCCS is one of many government agencies that must answer for Ferhani’s suicide attempt.

“We organized this vigil to stand in solidarity with Ferhani and his family but also to confront the [New York State] Department of Corrections about the longstanding abuse he has suffered inside one of their prisons, and also to confront the Department of Justice for failing to respond to his very clear complaints,” Ahmed told Rewire in a phone interview. “We also wanted to bring attention back to the NYPD, which is also responsible for the condition Ferhani is in. If they hadn’t targeted this mentally ill, socially unstable young man who already had a history of self-harm, he wouldn’t be in prison in the first place.”

Since the attacks on September 11, 2001, the NYPD has engaged in widespread surveillance of the state’s sizable Muslim population through programs that remained shrouded in secrecy until the Associated Press released a series of exposés in 2011. These reports made clear that what the NYPD, in collaboration with federal intelligence agencies, had deemed a lawful and necessary measure to prevent further terrorist attacks, had over the years morphed into a massive spying operation that likely violated Muslim residents’ constitutional rights.

Under such initiatives as the Demographics Unit, later renamed the Zone Assessment Unit, the NYPD deployed scores of confidential informants into Muslim communities to gather intelligence on what they called “ancestries of interest”—meaning, residents from almost every Muslim-majority country in the world, as well as American Black Muslims.

These counterterrorism operations failed to turn up a single lead despite NYPD informants infiltrating hundreds of schools, mosques, eateries, and other community spaces. In January, for the first time in nearly 15 years, the NYPD—under legal pressure from civil liberties groups—agreed to reign in its surveillance activities and enact safeguards that would prevent such surveillance from being undertaken, as Rewire reported.

But these reforms offer little comfort for those ensnared by informants and undercover agents during the height of the NYPD’s spying operations.

Lamis Deek, Ferhani’s attorney, says that if her client dies, the NYPD will “have his blood on their hands,” adding that the department went to great lengths to entrap him in a government-fabricated plot to acquire weapons and use them to attack synagogues.

“We want to go back and expose all the parties, public and private, behind the initial targeting of Ahmed,” Deek told Rewire in an email. “We also want a full investigation of all the corrections officers involved in abusing him. We want them held accountable. We want a [Department of Justice] investigation into Attica, which remains a horribly abusive prison. And we want the DOCCS investigated and their policies and training reviewed.”

Several people at the rally echoed Deek’s sentiments. They drew attention to the hundreds of Muslim men who have been charged and incarcerated on terrorism-related charges since September 11, 2001. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch found that “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.”

One of the protesters, a woman named Shahina Parveen, has experienced the impacts of these policies. Her son, Shahawar Matin Siraj, is serving a 30-year prison sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution at Otisville in upstate New York after an NYPD informant in 2003 ensnared him in a plot to attack the 34th Street subway station in New York City.

Parveen has worried that her son, like Ferhani, will succumb to what she claims is routine “torture” and religious discrimination at the hands of corrections officers, and systematic abuse on account of him being imprisoned on terrorism-related charges.

“All of us families who have been impacted must continue to speak out, to step up and push for accountability,” she told the crowd, adding that the Department of Corrections and the Department of Justice must answer for their policies, and the practices that persist in their prisons.

Parveen spoke strongly before the cameras, but later she broke down, telling Rewire in a quiet corner of the plaza where the rally took place that she lives in constant fear that her son will meet a similar fate as Ferhani.

“This could have been my son; I know his mother, we used to sit together and talk and cry,” she said. “They’re always harassing us, discriminating against us, torturing us—just because we’re Muslims. Some days I don’t know what to do. All I know is, we have to keep fighting.”

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