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Guilty Until Proved Innocent

Posted on Jun 12, 2013
Jacksoncam (CC BY 2.0)

By Victoria Brittain, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

The men’s daughters still speak out on their fathers’ case. Noor Elashi, for example, told me, “His is the poster case for ‘material support.’”  In the meantime, 15-minute weekly prison phone calls, monitored in real time from Washington, are the thinnest of threads to hold family relationships together, as are rare visits to distant prisons. Mariam Abu Ali once described to me her annual visit to her older brother Ahmed Abu Ali.  The expense was difficult to absorb: two flights, a rental car, and a motel for a three-day visit of about four hours a day, for a family already shouldering heavy debts for legal fees.

The real ordeal, though, was emotional, not financial. “They bring him in shackled at the waist and legs,” she told me. “We see them take off the handcuffs as he puts his hands out through a gap in the door. It’s emotionally draining… he’s there but so far away behind the glass. Only one of us can hear him at a time as he speaks though a phone… I’ve tried to lip read when it isn’t my turn, but it really doesn’t work. I feel very exhausted and sometimes I fall asleep during the visit. I cry every time, especially when he leaves…  It’s not like a death.  You don’t grieve and then finish, because this is not in the past.  In fact, it is not even in the back of my mind—it is always there… This is chronic after nine years and it is not going to end.”

In itself, solitary confinement has devastating effects, as Dr. Atul Gawande has vividly pointed out, and is becoming ever more common in U.S. prisons in breach of internationally recognized norms on the humane treatment of prisoners.  It tends to break the will of inmates, sometimes even robbing them of their sanity.  However, in its most extreme use, combining those special administrative measures with the isolation imposed in prison communication management units, it is mainly applied to American Muslims.

The stories of what happens to Muslim men today in U.S. prisons and of the judicial cases that land them there under the harshest of conditions bear a startling resemblance to the cages at Guantanamo Bay and the charade of a legal system that is still in operation there.


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Miscarriages of Justice

In addition to the examples of prominent, formerly successful Palestinian-Americans, there are a series of haunting cases of newer Muslim arrivals in the U.S., each of them an evident miscarriage of justice.  These include the Fort Dix Five, originally from Albania, and that of Imam Yassin Aref, an Iraqi Kurd.  Their entrapment cases, typically based on “sting” operations manufactured by FBI informants, sent men respected in their communities into solitary confinement for long years on what were probably trumped-up charges. In such cases, the only “plot” is often manufactured by the government itself.

This, then, is the state of so many cases of “terrorism” in the U.S. today in which disparate Muslim men have been swept up in a system in which guilt is assumed and people’s lives are quickly turned into waking nightmares in what used to be called the “justice system.”  Some great miscarriages of justice do get overturned. Black Panther Robert King spent 31 years in prison, 29 in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit. His release in 2001 came about by chance when his persistent letter writing attracted the attention of a young lawyer and the founder of The Body Shop, Anita Roddick, who became his champion alongside a grassroots campaign for his release.  Since then, King has himself campaigned at home and abroad for the release of his two colleagues in “the Angola Three,” who still remain in prison, and against the system that could have broken him as it has so many others.

Thanks to the special administrative measures applied in his case, Ahmed Abu Ali cannot do what Robert King did, or what the lawyer and a friend of WikiLeaks informant Private Bradley Manning did to get his prison conditions widely known, or what Mumia Abu Jamal has done throughout his 30 years in solitary confinement via his books and his talks on prison radio. Ahmed cannot contact the world outside in search of the support he and his family need, nor can his family members.

The painful impact of all this on the families is difficult to imagine. Chilean novelist and playwright Ariel Dorfman once wrote that torture “presupposes the… abrogation of our capacity to imagine someone else’s suffering, to dehumanize him or her so much that their pain is not our pain. It demands this of the torturer… but also demands of everyone else the same distancing, the same numbness.”

Perhaps such a state helps explain why people around the world are far more aware than most Americans of what happens to Muslim men in the post-9/11 “justice system.”  The particular cruelty of the punishments they endure even before their unfair trials, will someday, like the abuses at Guantanamo, gain the attention they deserve.

Victoria Brittain, journalist and former editor at the Guardian, has authored or co-authored two plays and four books, including Enemy Combatant with Moazzam Begg. Her latest book, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2013), has just been published.  This is her second piece for TomDispatch.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Victoria Brittain

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