A FIRST-HAND REFLECTION ON DOMESTIC TORTURE IN A TIME OF TERROR
Younus Abdullah Muhammad
They locked me in this room, Alone, by myself, just me –
With no one to talk to except for the walls, or the face in the mirror I see.
So I sit, listen, and watch
the television in my head
Not a notion to move nor a second spared
I record everything that is said –
Absence of Kindness, Distinct Memories of Pain
Caused by the things that they took away
So I’m holding my breath,
until they let me out
But I’m afraid of what might happen the next time I breathe.
I wrote that poem when I was 17. These days I am living it; all over again. Then it was a proverbial prison. I was a conscious youth inside one of the most dangerous institutions of America: the public high school. Today, 16 years later, I am in another – the U.S. prison system where I am but one of a growing number of Muslim Americans who dared to speak out. Today I am a pretrial federal inmate housed in solitary confinement and in conditions that best resemble those of Guantanamo Bay.
Trust me I am not alone. In 1994, my junior year of high school, the U.S. Justice Department announced that the prison population had reached one million. By 2009, that number had more than doubled to 2.3 million with 5 million more on probation or parole. U.S. citizens now represent only 5% of the global population but account for 25% of the world’s prisoners. Additionally, 1 in 15 Americans is in “extreme poverty” with 48% of Americans labeled “in poverty” or “working poor", but a recent Gallup poll documented that the percentage of Americans that realizes the levels of poverty are so high has dramatically decreased. These two seemingly distinct sets of statistics suggest something more sinister is going on.
The civil rights era included prison protests like the Attica riots of 1971 and paved a way for productive reform, but today talk of human rights tends to cover a manipulative compromise with the power elite and diverts attention away from structural cause. Generally prisoners today have enhanced rights and services but like the starving people fed by NGO’s in Africa or refugee camps in Afghanistan, such rights and philanthropy are counterproductive where they allow society to ignore the root causes of such appalling levels of crime, punishment, hunger or war. These contradictions become apparent with regard to civil liberties in a time of confrontation, when the citizen is reduced to an object of propaganda about domestic enemies in order to maintain public support for wars abroad.
The authors of the American constitution unanimously resented any sacrifice of civil liberties in the name of national security, but the reaction to 9/11, the immediate passage of the Patriot Act and a new approach to law enforcement the Bush Administration called a “preventative paradigm” ushered in an order of sustained national liberty sacrifice. These changes disproportionately affected American Muslims however while “terrorists” abroad were “disappeared”, water boarded and held without charges at Guantanamo Bay, the courts approved warrantless wiretapping, ethnic profiling, blacksite rendition and preventative detention targeting Muslims on America’s shores. Wartime propaganda alongside a wave of arrests utilizing entrapment, where undercover agents encourage fund, and coerce potential terrorist attacks, have helped to sustain support. Recent polling documents that two-thirds of Americans support sacrificing some privacy and freedoms in the fight against terrorism.
In many ways, these sacrifices pose serious risks to important principles of the rule of law. A recent report by Muslim Advocates entitled Losing Liberty claimed, “The Patriot Act opened the floodgates to a plethora of discriminatory and invasive laws, policies and practices in the name of national security of which Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim have borne the brunt.” To emphasize the danger, a recent AP investigation revealed that the CIA and NYPD have collaborated on a huge monitoring program targeting New York City Muslim populations.
One such derivative of these broader realities is the use of solitary confinement as a means of punishing Muslim prisoners before trial. The objective is to torture and enforce silence while pressuring detainees to accept pretrial plea agreements that prevent any future appeal on constitutional grounds. The use of solitary confinement remains mostly undocumented in the public realm, but the maintained use of such repressive practices poses potentially severe ramifications for the future of dissent in an increasingly polarized American society.
On December 20, 2011 Tarek Mahenna was found guilty by jury of 7 terror-related charges. He has been in solitary confinement for over 2 years. The primary evidence consisted of translated documents from Arabic to English, videos of Al-Qaeda, and proof of Tarek’s speaking out against U.S. war. His friends, family and community supported him even after the media initially painted him as a crazed terrorist. The jury found him guilty but many of us know he is innocent; I once gave a speech on his behalf about FBI entrapment within the Muslim community and I remember looking into his father’s sorrowful eyes while the audience remained largely unmoved. Tarek remained in isolation and we all went home, but as American society continues to deteriorate and he marches on (see Freetarek.com) I continue to wonder who remains more free.
Bush’s “preventive paradigm” was marked by the case of Jose Padilla, a U.S. resident initially detained in military custody after 9/11 as an alleged member of an Al-Qaeda sleeper cell. He was tortured and held in solitary confinement without family contact for over 18 months. By the time he presented for trial and was asked by the judge whether he was tortured he could only explain “I cannot answer that question sir, that is a state secret.” He was deemed an “enemy combatant.” I watched on T.V. as Americans celebrated the day he was convicted, a victory in the war.
Just this past month 700 page, bipartisan Defense Appropriation Bill stirred some controversy as one of its amendments granted indefinate detention without trial to anyone deemed an “enemy combatant.” Critics claimed the legislation was so broad it could be applied to American citizens captured overseas or even those arrested domestically for crimes of war. The White House threatened to veto but only because it limited the executive branch’s “flexibility” in avoiding the protections of the Geneva Convention. A White House statement read, “Congress must be careful not to open a whole new series of legal questions that will distract from our efforts to protect the country.” The document has become law and was modified slightly but will preserve the President’s ability to rendition and torture abroad. Jose Padilla remains in solitary confinement and Guantanamo has yet to close.
In 2006 U.S. Citizen Dr. Aafia Saddiqui was miraculously discovered in Afghanistan in possession of plans to commit terrorism abroad. Speculation surfaced about whether she was a woman secretly housed in the notorious prison of Bagram where former fellow prisoners had reported the abuse and rape of a female detainee. I watched in the New York City courtroom when her lawyer requested the judge send her to a facility in Minnesota where it could be determined if she was Bagram’s secret prisoner. Instead, the judge denied the request and she remained in solitary confinement strip searched and invaded for 2 years. She was eventually convicted for shooting a U.S. officer with an automatic weapon. She weighed 86 pounds when she allegedly fired the gun and is now serving 82 years. The media called her “Lady Al-Qaeda” and few will ever learn of the torture she endured in secret prison when she disappeared.
In 2005, Dr. Ali al-Timimi was convicted of counseling others to levy war against the U.S. and its allies. He told a few Muslims in the aftermath of 9/11 that it was permissible to defend Afghanistan from invasion. The men flew to Pakistan but never fought and eventually came home. I watched as he rejected a U.S. plea offer for 20 years on principles that he could not plead guilty to acts he did not commit. Today he is serving a life sentence and so few of us even remember his name.
Dr. al-Timimi’s case was one of the first post 9/11 cases that violated the landmark freedom of speech case from 1969 – Brandenburg vs. Ohio. In that decision the Supreme Court ruled that, “advocacy of the use of force or of law violation,” cannot be punished unless it is, “directed to inciting or promoting imminent lawless action and is likely to produce such action.” The case set the standard for First Amendment protection but quietly state and federal courts have failed to apply it in the post 9/11 era and have thus revoked the standard that once made American freedom of expression the envy of the world.
There are many others I have not forgotten. Dr. Omar Abdul Rahman was sentenced to life in prison for allegedly advocating the first World Trade Center attacks in 1996 when an FBI informant provided real explosives. He was convicted solely on the basis of speech, was held under pretrial “special administration measures” and has remained for years in solitary confinement. His lawyer, Lynne Stewart, would also be convicted on material support of terrorism charges and sentenced to 10 years for releasing a statement from Abdul Rahman claiming he had removed his support for a ceasefire between Islamists and the U.S. backed Mubarak regime. I was in the courtroom the day she was sentenced but never imagined that it would happen to me.
Along with the increasing numbers of convictions for material support of terrorism have come the development of what are known as Communication Management Units or CMU’s. These are prisons inside of prison designed to prevent political prisoners from contact with the outside world. The majority of inmates are Muslim but several non-Muslim activists have also been detained. Such Orwellian conditions highlight a general threat posed by a series of legislation like Joseph Lieberman’s 2007 Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Act which proposed such a broad definition of “radical” that almost anyone opposed to U.S. policy at all could fit the bill. All of these realities are mostly undiscussed in the mainstream press.
Fahad Hashmi was arrested in 2006 at Heathrow Airport and held for extradition to the U.S. where he would be charged with sending socks to “terrorists” in Pakistan. The U.S. Government would request Special Administrative Measures and placed him in pretrial solitary confinement for several years. In 2009, in a full courtroom, he accepted a government plea bargain of 12 years. As he read a statement to the judge his hands trembled and his lips stuttered “I am sorry but I haven’t been around people like this for a long time” he explained. Fahad Hashmi resides in a supermax prison where every single prisoner stays in solitary for years.
The European Court of Human Rights has stopped extradition to the United States from the United Kingdom on the presumption that detainees would be housed in solitary confinement thus constituting torture and inhumane detention. Almost all the cases brought before the court deal with Muslims. Still, we all remain in solitary with virtually no opposition on U.S. shores.
There are tens of thousands of inmates in American prisons in solitary confinement. The United Nations Human Rights Committee says that prolonged solitary confinement is torture, hands down. The idea is sensory depravation. When you isolate someone in a cell, restrict lateral vision and limit contact with the outside world, senses are exasperated, creating the conditions of a paradoxical realm, where limited sensorial experience is magnified.
In 1965 psychiatrists confined 65 people to isolatory conditions with goggles over their eyes, plugs in their ears and confinement to a chair. After only 48 hours, 5 of 65 had acute anxiety disorders. One was hysterical, another epileptic, and all of them diagnosed with extreme anxiety. Under today’s conditions these states are induced over time and psychiatric observation documents sustained symptoms such as insomnia, hallucination and claustrophobia persisting long after release.
After extradition from Morocco, I arrived back on American shores and have remained in solitary confinement for 90 days so far. A review of American history documents that suppression of speech and repressive silencing of dissent has always accompanied U.S. involvement in foreign wars. However, the Global War on Terror is now ten (10) years old. Where in the past the immediate curtailment of freedom and liberty was restored as U.S. military engagement prevailed, contemporary engagement in the Muslim world remains and has now successfully depleted every aspect of American power other than military might. The latest burst of dissatisfaction and the rise of rebellion both here and abroad suggest that these repressive legal practices may have to become engrained in the social fabric of a “democratic” police state, where the number of prisoners forgotten in the Gulags hides another area the U.S. remains exceptional in the world.
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton recently revealed the founding principles of this “Authoritarian” democracy in an interview with PBS’s Jim Lehrer on the Arab Spring. She said, “We are always better off on the side of democracy but we have to keep our eyes wide open. It wasn’t long ago, during the Cold War, that if somebody was elected, somebody we didn’t like, we took some action. We are for democracy that embeds democratic principles…” principles like discrimination against Muslims, pretrial torture, extraordinary rendition and disdain for human rights.
The young man upstairs was 17 when he made the YouTube video that landed him here. There are growing numbers of us across this great land. I remember reading a quote back in high school that also stuck with me unto today from Martin Niemoller who lived to tell of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. He said, “When the Nazis came to the Communists, I was silent. After all I was no Communist. When they took the Jews, I was silent. I am no Jew. When they arrested the Social Democrats, I was silent. I was no Social Democrat. When they came to take me, there was no one left to protest. We remain in solitary confinement but there are millions left to protest.
Deep within the Belly of the Beast, my heart yearns to be free
But I’m afraid of what the world may be like the next time I breathe.
Younus Abdullah Muhammed is a Muslim American and Master of International Affairs presently residing in solitary confinement in Virginia. He is the founder of Islampolicy.com and can be contacted by emailing Islampolicy@gmail.com