[Ppnews] 'Little Gitmo' - CMU Prisons

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jul 13 15:03:11 EDT 2011


'Little Gitmo'

When an upstate imam named Yassin Aref was 
convicted on a suspect terrorism charge, he was 
sent to a secretive prison denounced by civil 
libertarians as a Muslim quarantine.
    * By Christopher S. Stewart
    * Published Jul 10, 
2011   http://nymag.com/news/features/yassin-aref-2011-7/

On August 4, 2004, Yassin Aref was walking along 
West Street in a run-down part of downtown 
Albany. It was about 11 p.m., and he had just 
finished delivering evening prayer at the 
storefront mosque around the corner, where he had 
been the imam for nearly four years. Caught up in 
his thoughts, he might not have noticed the car 
parked across from his two-story building if a man hadn’t called out his name.

Aref instantly recognized the FBI agents inside 
the darkened vehicle. They had been monitoring 
him for years now, maybe longer. Sometimes they 
stopped and asked questions about his views on 
Saddam Hussein or the mosque. As part of Bush’s 
war on terror, the FBI had been talking to other 
Muslims in Albany, too. When Aref climbed into 
the back seat, he figured that the agents simply 
wanted to talk some more. Instead, they told him he was under arrest.

It took a long time for this to settle in. Aref 
was silent as they drove to FBI headquarters, a 
fortlike concrete-and-glass building on the south 
side of town. The agency has spoken only vaguely 
about what happened when they questioned him, and 
there are no recordings, though Aref would later 
describe the time as the “hardest, darkest, and 
longest night of my life”­scarier, he said 
recently, than the hardships he and his wife 
suffered as Kurds in ­Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

His hands and feet were chained. One of the 
agents spoke some Kurdish. Aref heard questions 
about terrorism, money laundering, a missile 
launcher. He refused a lawyer, believing that he 
had nothing to hide. “It is against my religion 
to lie,” he told them. The interrogation lasted 
much of the night. He says he never heard 
specific charges. At some point they told him his 
house and mosque were being raided, and all he 
could think about was his wife and three 
children, who had arrived in Albany with him as U.N. refugees in 1999.

When morning broke, he was loaded into another 
car, bleary-eyed and weakened, and taken to the 
federal courthouse. As the vehicle moved through 
the streets, Aref was astonished by the sudden 
commotion. Helicopters swarmed overhead. There 
were scores of local and national news reporters, 
cameras angling to get his picture. He saw snipers.

During his three-week trial in 2006, he learned 
that he was the target of a controversial FBI 
sting, which involved a Pakistani informant with 
a history of crime. In the end, he was convicted 
of, among other things, conspiracy to provide 
material support to a terrorist organization and 
sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He spent 
weeks in solitary confinement, days shackled in 
different vehicles, which shuffled him from 
prison to prison. Time coalesced, became 
unrecognizable, until, in the spring of 2007, 
Aref landed at a newly created prison unit in 
Terre Haute, Indiana, that would change his life 
again. It already had a nickname: Little Gitmo.

Aref didn’t know anything about Little Gitmo, or 
a Communication Management Unit (CMU), as it’s 
formally called. Once a death-row facility where 
Timothy McVeigh was executed, the Terre Haute CMU 
was quietly opened by the Bush administration in 
December 2006 to contain inmates with links, in 
particular, to ­“terrorist-related activity.” A 
year later, another unit opened in Marion, Illinois.

Although inmates and guards refer to CMUs as 
Little Gitmos, the comparison to Guantánamo is 
imprecise: The units are not detention centers, 
and the inmates inside have already been 
convicted of crimes in the U.S. legal system. But 
what differentiates CMUs from all other 
facilities in the U.S. are the prisoners. The 
Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) estimates 
that 66 to 72 percent of them are Muslims, a 
staggering number considering that Muslims 
represent only 6 percent of the entire federal-prison population.

As of June, there are 82 men in the two CMUs, 
according to federal-prison officials, including 
a man convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center 
bombing, the American Taliban John Walker Lindh, 
and the lone survivor of an EgyptAir hijacking in 
1985. All inmates are kept under 24-hour 
surveillance in near-complete isolation. “If the 
government has intelligence that links you to 
terrorist activity, then that’s something that 
the prison authority should be able to take into 
account,” says Andrew McCarthy, a former federal 
prosecutor and a senior fellow at the National 
Review Institute, in defense of the measures. “We 
give them an array of privileges that most other 
places in the world are shocked by.”

Legal activists agree that restrictive rules can 
be applied to high-security prisoners, but many 
in the CMUs, they say, are low-security inmates. 
One Muslim man was placed in a CMU for perjury, 
while another was locked up, in part, for 
violating U.S. sanctions by donating to a charity 
abroad without a license. According to CCR, many 
don’t fully know why they ended up in the 
segregated units or how they might appeal their 
placement. In the words of Kathy Manley, one of 
Aref’s defense attorneys, the CMUs are a 
“quarantine,” and Alexis Agathocleous, a lawyer 
at CCR, calls them “an experiment in social 
isolation.” “There is this story being told in 
this country now about the threat of homegrown 
terror and of radicalization related to Muslim 
prisoners, and the CMU is a story about law 
enforcement controlling that dangerous threat,” 
says Rachel Meeropol, a lawyer at CCR. “An 
allegation that someone is somehow connected to 
terrorism, without evidence and without an actual 
conviction [for terrorism], allows them to be 
treated in this whole different system of justice.”

To gather intelligence from CMU inmates, 
correspondence is combed through by a 
counterterrorism unit in West ­Virginia. Regular 
group prayer is prohibited, and communications 
must be in English unless there’s a live 
translator. Phone calls are limited to two 
fifteen-minute conversations a week (most 
maximum-­security prisoners get 300 minutes a 
month). Immediate families of CMU inmates can 
visit only twice a month for a total of eight 
hours (general-population prisoners at Terre 
Haute get up to 49 hours of visits a month), and 
those conversations are monitored, recorded, and 
conducted through Plexiglas. Physical contact is 
forbidden, a permanent ban not imposed on most 
violent felons in maximum-security prisons.

As a result, critics say, those familiar 
markers­family, language, and religious 
identity­are being stripped away. “This is more 
than just being cut off from the world,” says 
Nina Thomas, a psychologist-psychoanalyst at NYU 
who has studied the CMUs. “Inmates are being shut 
into a very narrow universe.”

While the stated purpose of the CMUs, according 
to prisons spokesperson Traci Billingsley, is to 
“protect the public,” Meeropol thinks that they 
“spread fear.” Shamshad Ahmad, a physics lecturer 
at the University of Albany and president of 
Aref’s mosque, says that CMUs “send a message 
that the whole justice system [is] geared to take 
revenge of the events of 9/11 on anyone belonging 
to the Muslim community”­a message that, 
essentially, any Muslim could become Aref.

And especially because Aref’s conviction is 
itself a matter of controversy, CCR has chosen 
the imam to become its lead plaintiff in a case 
against the CMUs, one of the major lawsuits, 
including the ACLU’s in Indiana, meant to 
challenge the units and change the way they 
operate. Along with five other plaintiffs, Aref 
now sits at the center of a civil-­liberties 
battle against the prison system. To a growing 
number of supporters in Albany­who have rallied 
to get him out; have published his pre-CMU 
memoir, Son of ­Mountains; have raised money for 
his family­he is a symbol of the inequities 
Muslims still endure as collateral damage in the war on terror.

Aref was born in a mountain village in northern 
Iraq, where he lived through Saddam’s genocide on 
the Kurds and met his wife, Zuhur. They fled to 
Syria, where he finished his religious studies, 
worked at the office of the Islamic Movement of 
Kurdistan (IMK), and had three kids. Under a U.N. 
asylum program, the family learned in 1999 that 
they were going to Albany, a place the 29-year-old Aref had never heard of.

Although he couldn’t speak or understand much 
English, he managed to support his family as a 
hospital janitor for more than a year before he 
became the imam of ­Masjid As-Salam, the city’s 
only mosque. During his four years as imam, Aref 
regularly discussed his anti–Iraq War sentiments 
and grew to represent the spiritual voice of many 
Albany Muslims. “People hesitated to criticize 
the government publicly,” says ­Ahmad. “But he didn’t.”

It is believed that the FBI decided to target 
Aref in the summer of 2003, after the American 
military stormed an armed camp in Iraq and 
discovered a notebook with his name and number in 
it, along with the word kak, which the FBI 
translated as “commander” (the prosecution would 
later admit that the term actually translates to 
“mister”). The camp was alleged to be affiliated 
with Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist organization 
founded by Mullah Krekar, who was once a member 
of the IMK, where he had met Aref. Aref’s backers 
argue that the camp was filled with refugees and 
that the notebook could have belonged to anyone. 
Aref claims that he met Krekar only in passing 
and that he left for Albany long before the mullah founded Ansar al-Islam.

That Aref had a past connection to Krekar was 
perhaps enough to attract the FBI’s attention, 
though likely not enough to mount a legal case 
against him. So, working with expanded 
surveillance powers, the FBI went about setting up an operation.

Since 9/11, the FBI had begun relying more 
heavily on informants, under a controversial 
policy of preemptive prosecution­taking down 
those thought to possibly become terrorists in 
the future. It has resulted in the conviction of 
more than 200 individuals, including four Muslims 
in Newburgh convicted of plotting to bomb two 
Bronx synagogues; a 19-year-old Somali charged 
with attempting to blow up a 
Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in Portland, 
Oregon; and a man caught plotting an attack on 
Herald Square. “These types of operations have 
proven to be an essential law-enforcement tool in 
uncovering and preventing potential terror 
attacks,” Attorney General Eric Holder said at a 
dinner this winter in defense of the tactics.

Critics, however, point out that in many 
operations, it’s difficult to determine whether 
anyone is truly culpable­or inherently dangerous. 
And intentionally or not, it’s very easy to round 
up Muslims. “There is a massive ideological, 
military, and intelligence infrastructure 
committed to the domestic and international wars 
on terror. These wars depend on maintaining 
Muslims as the primary threat to national 
security,” says Amna Akbar, a senior ­research 
scholar at NYU’s Center for Human Rights and 
Global Justice. “The U.S. government seems to 
rely on widespread use of informants 
 sending 
them into mosques and other community spaces 
without any concrete suspicion of criminal activity.”

In order to pursue Aref, the FBI employed a 
Pakistani informant named ­Shahed Hussain, known 
as Malik, the same informant later used in the 
Newburgh trial and a man once described by the 
defense in that case as “an agent provocateur who 
earned his keep by scouring mosques for easy 
targets.” Malik had made a deal to avoid years in 
jail and deportation for helping people cheat on 
driver’s-license exams. He was also arrested in 
Pakistan on a murder charge. The operation, 
scripted by the FBI, started with Mohammed 
Hossain, a Bangladeshi immigrant who owned a 
local pizzeria and helped found Aref’s mosque.

Over several months, Malik moved into Hossain’s 
life, bringing his kids toys and expressing 
interest in religion. Malik, who claimed to be 
working for the Islamic terrorist group 
Jaish-e-Mohammed, or JeM, eventually said he was 
buying a shoulder-firing missile launcher to kill 
then–Pakistani president Pervez Mushar­raf during 
a visit in New York City. To complete the 
purchase, he needed Hossain to launder $50,000 
for him. In return, Hossain, whose business was 
on the skids, would earn $5,000.

Hossain then asked Aref to be the witness to the 
loan, a tradition in Islamic culture (as the only 
imam in Albany, Aref had notarized many loans). 
There were additional months of transactions 
where Aref documented Hossain’s loan payments to 
­Malik. During those months, Malik would 
occasionally mention the missile, using the code 
word chaudry. The government argued that this was 
evidence that Aref knew about Malik’s terrorist 
connection, and the jury agreed. Aref was charged 
with ten of the 30 total counts, and the jury 
found him guilty of money laundering and 
supporting a known terrorist organization. “Did 
[Aref] actually engage in terrorist acts?” 
William Pericek, assistant U.S. Attorney, asked 
during a post-sentencing press conference. “Well, 
we didn’t have the evidence of that. But he had the ideology.”

“Family, language, and religious identity are being stripped away.”

To outside observers of the case, the details 
that emerged during the trial were troubling. The 
FBI testified that Aref knew the code word, 
linking him to the conspiracy, but according to 
recorded conversations, there was no evidence 
that either Malik or Hossain informed him of the 
term. And though Malik had shown a fake missile 
to Hossain, the FBI decided against showing it to 
Aref because they worried that he would be “spooked.”

The case, observers noted, ultimately lacked 
definitive evidence that Aref knew the true 
nature of the transaction, and the jury was 
directed to ignore the motives of the FBI’s 
investigation. As Judge ­Thomas J. McAvoy 
instructed them, “The FBI had certain suspicions, 
good and valid suspicions for looking into Mr. 
Aref, but why they did that is not to be any concern of yours.”

“I’m not only surprised that the jury convicted 
him, but I’m sure the judge was surprised too,” 
says Stephen Gottlieb, a professor at Albany Law 
School and author of Morality Imposed: The 
Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. “They 
basically turned two decent men into criminals.”

Manley believes he lost on emotional grounds. “I 
think the fear got to [the jury]. They ended up 
convicting him out of fear that he might be some 
kind of shadowy bad guy.” Steve Downs, another 
member of Aref’s legal team, attributes it to 
what he calls “the Muslim exception.” The emotion 
and politics of 9/11 had, they argue, altered the 
threshold for what constituted reasonable doubt.

In the years since Aref’s trial, critics have 
identified a pattern. “A whole range of policing, 
prosecution, and incarceration policies seem to 
take as a starting point that Muslims pose a 
particularly uncontainable threat meriting 
extreme and exceptional treatment by the 
government,” says Akbar. “Because national 
security has become an area in which the 
government is granted an extraordinary amount of 
deference, these policies are often allowed to stand without much scrutiny.”

After the jury reached a verdict, two local 
papers published editorials asking for leniency. 
The editors at the Albany Times Union called the 
case “unsettling,” with no clear answer to why 
the men were targeted, and wondered what lives 
Hossain and Aref would have “continued to lead if 
they had never been lured into a sting operation.”

The judge sentenced Aref to fifteen years and 
recommended a local federal prison. Instead, he 
was sent to the CMU, with little explanation, no 
hearing, and no obvious way to appeal.

The first time Aref wrote to me, in a heavily 
monitored e-mail exchange, he said, “I am not 
spending my time, time is spending me. My 
family’s situation is driving me insane and 
eating my patience.” His world was falling apart 
at the CMU. “It’s really hard for me to talk about what happened,” he wrote.

When Aref was sent to the Terre Haute CMU in May 
2007, he was 37 years old. “I arrived to find a 
small Middle Eastern community,” he said. There 
were about twenty others inside. The idea of 
being called a terrorist sickened Aref. Every day 
he wondered why he was there, and he hoped 
someone would eventually realize that a mistake 
had been made. “I don’t understand how the jury 
found me guilty,” he wrote at one point.

His cell unlocked at 6 a.m., and he could 
circulate through the small unit comprising a few 
dozen cells and a common room. At 9 p.m., he’d be 
locked in for the night. On occasion, he heard 
screaming, and one day he saw a grown man drop to 
the floor and begin uncontrollably shaking and 
sobbing. When Aref asked a nurse later what had 
happened, she told him, “It’s all fear and stress.”

A peculiar loneliness consumed him. As an imam, 
Aref was naturally social. He helped solve 
people’s problems and guide them through their 
tangled lives. But at Terre Haute, he became 
reticent, curled inside himself. It was hard to 
know whom to trust. The FBI was sending agents to 
the unit to ask questions, and new inmates came every few weeks or so.

All along, he felt his family drifting away. That 
one fifteen-minute phone call a week (a second 
call per week was added in January 2010) was 
never enough. What could you really say in 
fifteen minutes divided up among at least four 
people? He tried to be upbeat, avoiding talk of 
the CMU. With the kids, he spoke about school, a 
kind of dinner talk. When his wife got on, the 
reality of their separation was oppressive.

Zuhur “almost lost her mind,” as Aref put it. The 
case had turned her upside down. Worried about 
wiretaps, she had disconnected the Internet, TV, 
and phone. She didn’t have a job and relied on 
friends and the mosque to pay her rent and buy 
food. She rarely interacted with strangers, 
afraid that they might be informants setting her up.

Talking to Aref was a project that required a 
friend to lend a cell phone to the family on the 
days he called. And when he spoke to Zuhur, she 
mostly cried. In the four years that he has been 
at the CMU, she has cried during every single call.

One of the hardest things was thinking about his 
young daughter, Dilnia. She was born while Aref 
was in jail. All he was to her was an abstract 
concept. “Whenever anyone asks her, ‘Where is 
your daddy?’ she will point or run to the phone 
and say, ‘That is my daddy,’ ” Aref said.

His two boys visited that first summer. With 
surveillance cameras zeroing in on them, it was 
difficult to be intimate. Salah was 10, Azzam 7. 
As Aref spoke through the Plexiglas, every word, 
every gesture was being mined for information.

His demeanor changed dramatically when his boys 
stepped away and Downs stepped in. Downs had made 
the two-day car trip with the kids from Albany. 
“They abuse me,” Aref said. When Downs asked him 
to explain, Aref wouldn’t. Then suddenly the 
meeting was terminated. According to Downs, a 
guard falsely claimed that he was using a pen “as a secret recording device.”

“I’m convinced that they understood I was trying 
to get info about the CMU,” Downs says. “And they 
did what [the CMU] was set up to do­prevent 
information [about the CMU] from getting out.”

The entire family arrived in a minivan the next 
summer, in 2008. It had been roughly four years 
since they’d all been together. But seeing his 
2-year-old girl on the other side of the glass 
gave Aref tremendous pain. She didn’t recognize him.

The family spent a total of four hours together, 
and all seemed well until Zuhur suddenly snapped. 
In front of the kids, she made an announcement: 
She wanted to go back to Kurdistan. She felt her 
safety was at risk in America, even more than in 
the region from which she had fled.

Aref didn’t want to argue. A part of him 
understood. “I am not dead in order for them to 
forget me,” he said to me, “and not really alive 
to benefit them.” That was the last time he saw 
his family. They didn’t visit again. Zuhur wouldn’t let them.

On March 27, 2009, at about 4 a.m., a guard 
entered Aref’s cell and told him to pack. He was 
being transferred to the second CMU, at the state 
penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, which had 
opened a year before. Until recently, Marion had 
been one of the nation’s only supermax facilities, replacing Alcatraz in 1963.

The move came at a particularly fraught moment 
for the CMUs. When President Obama came into 
office in 2009, many hoped the units would be 
shut down. The Bureau of Prisons wouldn’t say if 
the new administration had reviewed the units, 
but they remained open, and their expansion soon 
inspired a fierce legal battle. In the summer of 
2009, the ACLU’s National Prison project filed a 
lawsuit on behalf of an inmate that disputed the 
legality of the creation of the units, among 
other things. Soon after, the ACLU of Indiana 
filed another lawsuit, about the restrictions on Muslim prayer.

In the meantime, “balancers,” as CMU guards call 
them, were reportedly blended into the 
population­environmental activists, sexual 
predators, bank robbers, people who, prison 
officials claimed, “recruit and radicalize”­in 
order to address the criticism that CMUs were 
housing only Muslims. The Bureau of Prisons says 
it doesn’t use race or religion to decide 
placement, and it rejects claims of adding 
balancers, though Muslim inmates continue to be in the majority.

In April 2010, CCR, with Aref, filed its suit, 
challenging the constitutionality of the place: 
the harsh restrictions on phone calls and visits, 
the ban on physical contact, the alleged absence 
of due process, and cited growing evidence 
suggesting that prisoners were being targeted for 
their religious and political beliefs.

To CCR, Aref’s case was especially ­poignant. 
“Aref came to the United States as a refugee and 
was then subject to a dubious conviction,” says 
Agathocleous. “Despite the fact that he engaged 
in no violence, that the prosecution acknowledged 
at trial that it was not seeking to prove he was 
a terrorist, and that his conduct in prison was 
spotless, he has been subject to these incredibly 
restrictive conditions at the CMU 
 It just doesn’t make any sense.”

In Marion, Aref’s single cell was just as small 
as the former one, and his family was just as far 
away. But something had changed. He began to 
dread the phone calls with his family. “For many 
prisoners, the phone call is a big relief, and 
they get strength from it,” he said. “But each 
time I call and hear my wife crying and I learn 
what my children are going through, it stresses my mind.”

“I am not spending my time, time is spending me.”

After a motion for a new trial was dismissed and 
the appeal to his original case was rejected, a 
part of him became resigned to the situation, friends say.

Then on April 13, I received a surprise e-mail 
from Aref. “How are you doing?” he asked. And 
then he told me the news. “For real, I am no longer in CMU!”

“My father is a very religious man,” Aref’s 
15-year old daughter, Alaa, says one recent 
summer night. “He has a beard and wears Arab 
clothes and has an accent. But when you talk to 
him”­she pauses as if conjuring her father­“you 
know he’s not a terrorist.” She has trouble 
saying this word. Terrorist. It doesn’t sound 
right in her mouth. And she tries it another way. “Baba didn’t hate anyone.”

On this June night, Aref’s four kids sit 
barefooted on the carpet of a classroom on the 
second floor of the Central Avenue mosque in 
Albany, where their father was once the imam. 
Some of the doors are still broken from the FBI raid almost eight years ago.

The two boys, Salah, 14, and Azzam, 11, sit on 
either side of Alaa. Dilnia, who is now 5, sits 
off to the side, reading a book with a family 
friend. Zuhur stayed home. “She sometimes is 
depressed and doesn’t go out,” Alaa says.

Friends of the family say that Zuhur still talks 
about returning to Iraq, though she doesn’t have 
the money for a plane ticket or travel documents. 
Her crying hasn’t abated. When she does leave the 
house, she occasionally visits Aref’s lawyers and 
asks, “What did Yassin do wrong?” or “When is he coming home?”

Since being placed in a general-­population 
prison, Aref remains cautious. Without much 
explanation, he was moved out of the CMU, where 
he had been separated from the world for four 
years, and he could just as easily be moved back, 
like officials had done recently to an 
environmental activist named Daniel ­McGowan. 
Aref’s lawyer speculates that my requests to 
visit Aref in a CMU and the CCR lawsuit had 
placed pressure on prison officials, which might 
have had something to do with his sudden transfer 
out. (It’s a tactic that’s worked for CMUs in the 
past. With one of the ACLU lawsuits, a plaintiff 
was moved from a unit to a general-population 
prison and the case was dismissed.)

Last April, four years after the first CMU opened 
and days following CCR’s suit, the Bureau of 
Prisons began a public discussion of the units, a 
move, advocacy groups say, the prison system was 
legally obligated to make before the CMUs ever 
opened. Many of the comments that flooded in 
focused on the lack of meaningful appeal­that 
inmates are stuck in the units­and in particular, 
how the units were ruining the men and their families.

Once Aref entered the general-population prison, 
he assumed that things would get better­that he 
would be able to embrace his wife and hug his 
kids, and that he might even be transferred again to a prison closer to home.

But so far, none of that has changed.

The FBI investigation and the CMUs have so 
alienated his family, especially Zuhur, who has 
still not visited her husband since his transfer. 
She hasn’t allowed the kids to go, either­though 
supporters are working to set up a trip for this summer.

None of Aref’s kids know exactly why their father is in jail.

Azzam, playing with the yellow gum in his mouth, 
says, “Money laundering or something, right?”

“It was an FBI sting,” Alaa says. “They kind of 
set him up for missiles or something.”

Salah, who looks most like his father in his long white shirt, nods.

“I miss him,” Alaa says. Turning to Steve Downs, 
who has been sitting quietly against the wall, 
she asks, “When my father gets out, they can deport him right away?”

Downs nods. Aref will be deported the day he is 
released from prison. Among them, Dilnia is the 
only American citizen, which means that all the 
others could be deported on that day too, or 
shortly after. Zuhur was recently denied citizenship.

Alaa will turn 18 before her father is released, 
and she could apply for citizenship. If it’s 
granted, she could become the guardian of the others.

I ask whether what’s been done to their father 
makes them angry. The boys are silent. “I’m 
upset,” Alaa says. “But my dad taught us never to hate.”






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