In the name of the War on Terror, our government is misusing the justice system.
“I am so ashamed.” I overheard that comment from an older woman as Syed Fahad Hashmi’s supporters filed out of the courtroom after his sentencing yesterday. The sense of shame in what had just transpired was palpable among all who had been in attendance: young men in suits, women in niqabs, activists in jeans. We had just witnessed a judge hand Hashmi (a US citizen) the maximum sentence, 15 years in prison, for letting an acquaintance carrying socks and ponchos to Al Qaeda camps sleep on his couch while studying in London. The judge, apparently aligned with the US government prosecution, had informed us that Hashmi, who had been kept for three years in solitary confinement, was to be used as an example: no matter how tenuous your connection to Al Qaeda, you are as guilty as they are for killing American soldiers. The blind process of justice felt distorted, used as a mere tool in our “war against terror.” It was like watching a scene from a dystopian futuristic movie. But it was real.
Hashmi’s sentencing in a court in Lower Manhattan yesterday was the first time he had spoken in a year. Even so, his defense of himself, if rushed, was moving. He started out by asking “forgiveness of every individual I have harmed,” and thanking the “Muslims and non-Muslims who are kind enough to support me,” hoping that “Allah gives me the opportunity to repay your kindness.” The courtroom was so full of supporters that two overflow rooms had to be opened. The crowd included family, members of the Muslim community, and people who had heard of his story and come to bear witness.
As he began to give his explanation of what happened, his voice choked with tears. He told a story of a young man gone to London to study, who let a “familiar face” stay with him because “the Qur’an says to be kind to traveling visitors.” “I did it in ignorance,” he said, as he didn’t know where the man was headed. “I take full responsibility for my actions.”
But the most horrifying part of the event was not listening to his pained words. It was hearing the government’s version of the story. The prosecution asked to “put his misconduct into context,” by claiming that Hashmi was raised on an ideology of “violence and intolerance” in his childhood home of Queens, New York because of a loose connection to Omar Bakri. We were reminded that while Hashmi has never been a member of Al Qaeda, “Not every person who supports Al Qaeda pulls a trigger or plants a bomb.” Indeed, in the government’s eyes, the crime of giving housing to a man with socks in his bag is just as dangerous.
When Judge Loretta Preska gave her statement, I hoped for some balance between the two stories. I was wrong. “Hashmi believed in Al Qaeda…he wholeheartedly embraced the opportunity and provided what they needed,” she stated. US citizens who “exploit their citizenship” and “align themselves against us,” she said, “constitute a particularly pernicious threat.” Is US citizenship something that can be exploited? If so, in the eyes of our justice system, every person sitting in that courtroom owned a weapon to use against the State.
But the judge wasn’t just interested in holding Hashmi accountable for the alleged crime. She wanted to make sure his sentencing was heard around the world. “There is the need to afford deterrence generally against this,” she decided, as she meted out 15 years in prison with a three year supervised release afterward.
Fifteen years in prison for socks and ponchos that didn’t belong to him. The defense said nothing, and Hashmi’s explanation was buried under the sentencing. One supporter explained to me that two days before Hashmi’s trial, the government prosecution persuaded Judge Preska to hold the trial with an anonymous jury and to have the US Marshal Service follow and “protect” the jury from Hashmi’s supporters. This tinged the jury with a sense of fear in the face of “terrorism” even before it began. A fair trial by a jury of one’s peers? More like a show trial in front of frightened people.
While it is true that fighting terrorism is far more complicated than fighting a traditional, World War II-style war, this fight has been an excuse to erode our rights as citizens. Our government is using the courtroom as a weapon. With tenuous evidence at best, a man’s thin connection to Al Qaeda has been twisted to scare all of us into line. The government’s case and the judge’s statement made it clear that the real point wasn’t about what Hashmi believed or did; it was about drawing a line in the sand. While such travesties were horrific during the Bush years, there is something more awful in their continuance under a new administration.
The war on terror seems in some ways a war against justice. And America’s fight against its own citizens seems likely to continue.