Syed Fahad Hashmi has been held in twenty-three-hour-a-day solitary confinement for nearly three years. The government’s case rested on the testimony and actions of an old acquaintance of Hashmi’s who turned government informant after his own arrest. The thirty-year-old American citizen’s trial was due to begin today in New York, but on Tuesday Hashmi pleaded guilty to one count of material support to a foreign terrorist organization. In a Democracy Now! exclusive, we speak with his brother and his former college adviser. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: We end today with a new twist in the case of former Brooklyn College student Syed Fahad Hashmi on the eve of his trial. The thirty-year-old American citizen has been held in twenty-three-hour solitary confinement for nearly three years. His trial was due to begin today here in New York, but on Tuesday Hashmi pleaded guilty to one count of material support to a foreign terrorist organization. Hashmi told US District Judge Loretta Preska that between January 2004 and May 2006 he helped a former acquaintance store and transport waterproof socks, ponchos and sleeping bags to al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan. His guilty plea was part of a last-minute deal with prosecutors in which he admitted to certain charges in exchange for three other counts being dropped, thus avoiding a trial and a possible seventy-year sentence.
AMY GOODMAN: Hashmi will be sentenced in June and now faces up to fifteen years in prison. He was arrested in Britain in 2006 while trying to board a flight to Pakistan. In 2007, he became the first person extradited from Britain to the United States on terrorism charges and has been held in solitary confinement and subjected to so-called "special administrative measures," or SAMs, since then.
We’re joined here in New York by Hashmi’s brother, Faisal Hashmi, and his former adviser at Brooklyn College, Jeanne Theoharis. She’s a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and co-founder of Educators for Civil Liberties.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Faisal, let’s begin with you. Talk about this decision by your brother. He was held for twenty-three hours a day, solitary confinement for three years. Is this the longest? Is this unusual —-
FAISAL HASHMI: Yeah, I think it’s an aberration.
AMY GOODMAN: —- pretrial detention?
FAISAL HASHMI: It is an aberration for pretrial detention. It has been kind of the status quo for Muslims facing terrorism charges to be held in solitary confinement, pretrial. I think the longest I know of is Mohammed Warsame in Minneapolis, which was five years, pretrial, solitary confinement.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Were you surprised by his decision to plead out?
FAISAL HASHMI: Absolutely. It came yesterday morning, after — on the heels of the government’s decision to — or the judge’s decision to allow an anonymous jury. After that particular decision, we had —- you know, we were expected to go to trial today. So I was completely surprised. But the end of it, it was a decision that he comes home in less than ten years, as opposed to risking seventy years in jail.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you see your brother yesterday?
FAISAL HASHMI: I saw him in court.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did he look like?
FAISAL HASHMI: He looked good. He looked OK. And this was the first time I’ve seen him in months. Our family has not seen him in five months, for visitation. Again, we’ve had sparing visitation in the three years that he’s been in solitary confinement.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the fact that he is facing this long jail sentence while the man he supposedly assisted, who then turned evidence against him, is getting leniency from the government, could you talk about that?
FAISAL HASHMI: It is what it is. It is a state of affairs in the current judicial system. The inherent injustices and contradictions of the judicial system came to light in this situation. What has happened to the Muslim community with the cooperating witness paradigm, the pre-emptive prosecution paradigm, the CMUs, the Supermax, all of these came into play. And this case allowed it to be exposed for what it is and the larger messages, that have to deal with the treatments of the Muslim community, got to be played out. And, you know, hopefully it will help our community, going forward.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Jeanne Theoharis, how important was the decision that the judge made on the eve of the trial in terms of affecting the possible outcome, about the anonymous jury and what the judge claimed was the reason for it?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: I think it was very important. Basically, we’ve seen growing attention to these issues and to this case. Many people sought to come and observe the trial. And the government last week filed a motion asking for an anonymous jury with extra security. The Center for Constitutional Rights last week came out saying that’s an attempt to frighten the jury. They would have been brought in and out of the court, you know, with extra security. I think that sends a message before you walk into court that is person is dangerous and he is guilty.
I think it also is very troubling in terms of the state of our democracy, that we believe in having open court, public court, that the public going to court is crucial to a democracy. And yet, the government introduced in its motion a poster calling on people to come observe the trial as Exhibit A. It made comments about supporters that jurors would naturally look out and see people who might share his violent Islamic leanings, and this is very troubling.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that part.
JEANNE THEOHARIS: I mean, I can’t -—
AMY GOODMAN: No, explain what was said. What happened?
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Basically, they said that they had concerns, you know, that there was rising support and people coming to trial and that jurors would look out into the audience and see people and naturally — and they used the word "naturally" —- assume that some of those supporters shared Hashmi’s violent Islamic -—
AMY GOODMAN: Let me read the quote of the US attorney —-
JEANNE THEOHARIS: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- writing to the court. Says, “It’s likely the jurors will see in the gallery of the courtroom a significant number of the defendant’s supporters naturally leading to jurors speculation that at least some of these spectators might share the defendant’s violent, radical Islamic leanings.” Faisal?
FAISAL HASHMI: It’s interesting. Wallace Shawn is one of our supporters. Wallace Shawn, Princess Bride —-
AMY GOODMAN: The writer.
FAISAL HASHMI: The writer, he has come out. Bill Irwin. Is the government afraid of Wallace Shawn? Is that -— you know, is that the blanket declaration? But it’s very specific in the language. It’s very specific to the Muslim community. It’s very specific to the policy and the trends that are apparent, that cannot be, you know, ignored anymore. The government freely utilized this language. And for us, it has the undertones of racism, and it has implications about how the Muslim community should be looked at.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Is there any indication from your lawyers that once the sentencing occurs that at least the special administrative measures will be lifted, the SAMs? And could you talk about what the impact of those measures are on your family?
FAISAL HASHMI: Yeah, the draconian measures of special administrative measures, where a person is kept in solitary confinement, not allowed to speak out loud in his own cell, not allowed to move in certain ways in his own cell, not allowed to shower without closing the curtains, we don’t know if they’re going to be lifted. We do know what the pattern is that people are sent to Supermax prison or a communication management unit are. You know, they’re kept in conditions that normal prisoners are not kept into. So again, post-conviction, the treatment of Muslims needs to be addressed, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Where will your brother be? Where will he be held? How does this — where he has been, how he’s been treated — compare to prisoners at Guantánamo?
FAISAL HASHMI: David Ruhnke, our lawyer, said this is worse than Guantánamo. Sammy “The Bull” Gravano was in the special housing unit. Bernie Madoff was in the special housing unit. When Bernie Madoff was in the special housing unit, the press made a big deal about how it’s the absolute worst place, and they cited Sammy “The Bull” Gravano. They cited this institution called the special housing unit as being the torture chamber. And the conditions there are far worse than Guantánamo. So if anybody is coming to the federal system, this is what they will face. And this is a calculated ploy of the government to make you think closing Guantánamo and putting people into the federal system is something better, which it’s inherently not.
AMY GOODMAN: And where he’ll be in prison next?
FAISAL HASHMI: I have no idea where he’ll be in prison next. I can talk to you about one of the special administrative measures that another person named Ahmed Abu Ali faced in a Supermax prison, where he was denied Jimmy Carter’s book in Florence, Colorado, because Jimmy Carter’s book promotes Jihadi rhetoric. So this is the conditions. These are the paradigm that my brother faces, going forward. I hope his situation is alleviated. I hope we get visitation.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Faisal Hashmi is Fahad Hashmi’s brother. He has pled guilty on one count, which will mean he will not go to trial, of aiding a terrorist organization. Jeanne Theoharis, professor of political science at Brooklyn College, was his adviser. She is co-founder of Educators for Civil Liberties.