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America’s Bastille | Sunday Open Thread


Innalhamdolillah. The Bastille was a French prison that so symbolized the oppression and irresponsibility of France’s monarchy that France’s equivalent of the 4th of July is called “Bastille Day.” Because on July 14 the French celebrate the angry mob that stormed the Bastille. France’s revolution was a terrible, bloody, and bloodthirsty affair, but much of the hate that had built up in France had to do with injustices associated with the Bastille and the ability of French officials to ruin lives at will by imprisoning people without access to appeal, without hope of justice.

Today, America has created its own equivalent of the Bastille, but so far its worst victims have been from primarily one community: Muslims.

This Sunday, while each of us enjoys freedom in abundance, including the opportunity to surf a web page, post a thought, or to ignore or be moved by the suffering of others, we offer this editorial by the sister of a Muslim whose suffering evokes the title America’s Bastille. (An edited/shorter version of the following editorial appeared in a college newspaper.)

My brother Ahmed Abu Ali has spent the past 5 years in solitary confinement, under 23-hour lockdown, in a 7×12 cell.  He has one recreational hour in which he must get strip-searched if he wishes to leave his cell.  He gets one unscheduled telephone call a month to his family, and receives the newspaper by the time news becomes history.  If I send him a letter wishing him a happy birthday, he gets it 60 days later. When I visit him, once a year, I speak to him from behind a glass window. He is literally in a dungeon, over 20 meters beneath the ground.

Ahmed is not in a foreign prison, nor is he in Guantanamo; he is in a super maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado. Ahmed was not convicted of an act of violence nor was he charged with one.

In 2003, Ahmed, a sociable 22 year old, was studying abroad when he was suddenly detained in Medina, Saudi Arabia at the behest of the U.S government.  My family in tandem with several human rights organizations filed a habeas petition demanding his return to the US, and the judge ruled in our favor. After being held for nearly two years in Saudi Arabia without any charges or access to an attorney, Ahmed was transferred to US custody. The US government sought to avoid public embarrassment by charging him with nine counts of terrorism related conspiracy. The only evidence presented was a confession tape obtained under torture in Saudi Arabia, a country with documented prisoner abuse as reported by the State Department. Additionally, the judge suppressed the defense’s evidence of torture from the jury during the trial. During a pretrial hearing, Ahmed offered to show the scars on his back in the US courtroom. The judge refused his request but assured him that he would not be mistreated in the United States.

Mistreatment would be an understatement to the draconian conditions under which he is held. Ahmed was initially sentenced to 30 years, but the prosecution was not satisfied. They appealed to increase his sentence. Despite the fact that the so-called conspiracies according to the judge- “did not result in a single actual victim”, he is now serving a life sentence in solitary confinement under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs).

Created in 1996, the SAMs were imposed for a maximum of four months when a prisoner was deemed violent.  Now, the SAMs can be designated by the Attorney General for up to a year, and renewed continually thereafter resulting in perpetual isolation, a form of torture under international law.  The SAMs limit certain “privileges”, including but not limited to correspondence, visits, media interviews, and telephone use.  The SAMs also restrict conversations between inmates and their lawyers by allowing them to be monitored by prison officials, violating attorney-client privilege and depriving inmates of their right to effective counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. Ahmed was under the SAMs even before his trial began. Imposing the SAMs pre-trial cast a shadow of suspicion on a defendant, rendering him as guilty until proven innocent.  

Unfortunately, my brother’s case is not an anomaly. Civil rights violations are an integral part of the “War on Terror” and have become entrenched in the US court system and in prison policy. Fahad Hashmi is a young student from New York, who received his B.A from Brooklyn College and his master’s from London Metropolitan University.  In 2006, he was arrested at an airport in the United Kingdom and held in England’s notorious Belmarsh prison for 11 months. Like Ahmed, Fahad was charged with conspiracy on the basis of flimsy evidence. While in the UK, he allowed an acquaintance to stay at his apartment for two weeks. The government alleges that this acquaintance had socks, raincoats, and ponchos in his luggage during his stay that would later get delivered to Al-Qaida. The government’s case rested on secret evidence and the testimony of the acquaintance who then became an informant to get a reduction on his own prison sentence.

Fahad was extradited back to New York, where he has been held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center without a trial under the SAMs for the past three years. Under 24-hour electronic surveillance, he is required to shower and relieve himself in view of the camera.  Furthermore, his limited family visits have been suspended for the past five months.

Extreme sensory deprivation often leads to hunger strikes and results in the deterioration of prisoners’ physical and mental health. Medical and scholarly research has shown that such sensory deprivation results in depression, lethargy, and psychosis in otherwise healthy prisoners. After studying inmates in solitary confinement, Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, noted that they “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose…In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,” lapsing into catatonic states. John McCain, who had spent more than two years in isolation while detained in Vietnam, said solitary confinement “crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” Last year, Ahmed’s conditions were so unbearable causing him to go on hunger strike for two months, losing 50 pounds. Fahad’s health has also degraded immensely, which would have compromised his ability to participate in his defense during the trial that was set to begin on April 28.  

Instead, Fahad reached a plea bargain on the eve of his trial. In addition to facing the prospect of a 70-year prison sentence, the court granted the government’s request for an anonymous jury with extra protection. The Center for Constitutional Rights called it “a clear attempt to influence the jury by creating a sense of fear for their safety and to paint Mr. Hashmi as already guilty.” Considering the biased circumstances led Fahad to accept a chance for a lesser charge, the plea should not be presumed as an admission of guilt.

Ahmed or Fahad’s innocence is not the point, though I believe both are guilt-free. Rather, I write because regardless of their innocence or guilt, it is their right to be treated humanely. If we believe in the inherent dignity of each human being, then we should be outraged by these abuses. Unfortunately, abuse here in the United States rarely receives media attention. President Obama promised to close down Guantánamo; let us demand that he closes down the Guantánamo-style prisons on U.S. soil, too. Anyone with a true understanding of American values ought to demand an immediate end to these cruel and unusual punishments.

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Keep supporting MuslimMatters for the sake of Allah

Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Bismillah walhamdolillah. May Allah accept my repentance and yours. I am an attorney, a stepfather, a husband, a son, and a Muslim. Studying Islam is a means, reflecting what I have learned is a must, and to Allah is the inevitable return. If you would like my help, know that Allah is the source of all aid. If you would like to contact me, try tariqnisarahmed at Gmail, LinkedIn, Twitter, or add me as a friend on Facebook.



  1. Ify Okoye

    May 16, 2010 at 12:32 AM

    Subhan Allah, inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon. May Allah azza wa jal set free every unjustly detained captive.

  2. anon

    May 16, 2010 at 4:51 AM

    And we wonder who the modern day fir’awn is?

    May Allah Subhanhu Wa T’alla relieve the Muslims of the oppression of the Dhalimeen.

  3. shaam

    May 16, 2010 at 8:08 AM

    ameen to others dua. May Allah show Light to the Dhalimeen and may their conscious be awaken. May Allah not make us among them and May we not support their act. Ameen.

  4. elham

    May 16, 2010 at 10:23 AM

    Inna lilLahi wa inna ilLayi raji’oon. May Allah set them free soon,safe and sound, purify them,fill their hearts with Light from Him and increase them in patience for His victory.

    “There is no Aid Except from Allah, the Exalted the Wise.” (3:126)

  5. Sayf

    May 16, 2010 at 11:45 AM

    Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’oon. Ameen to the dua’s.

    • unknown

      May 16, 2010 at 9:49 PM

      Assalamu ‘alaikum,

      subhanallah, this watch is so common.

  6. s

    May 16, 2010 at 3:26 PM

    anyone have a good resource discussing the Islamic stance on evolution?

  7. abu abdAllah Tariq Ahmed

    May 17, 2010 at 1:40 AM

    Today is May 17, and for most not-for-profit organizations in the United States, today is “tax day.” (Masajid, churches, etc. are typically exempt from many/all filing requirements.)

    That means that not-for-profits (like MM) have to report their gross/total revenues for the prior year (the amount of detail depends on the amount of revenue, but sometimes on the type, too). (The date will depend on the last day of the organization’s “tax year,” but for most organizations that last day was 12/31, so for them tax day is May 15, which fell on Saturday this year and is then extended to today.)

    Bored? Okay, but this year many organizations may find themselves in trouble: if they have failed to file at all for 3 straight years, their tax exempt status will be revoked!

    If you are in doubt about your favorite organization, today (Monday the seventeenth) would be a good day to clear up that doubt. I’ve checked already: MM is okay, alhamdolillah. (Good job Ahmad!)

  8. Ify Okoye

    May 19, 2010 at 5:00 AM

    Here’s a link to the legal fund for Ahmed Abu Ali:

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