January 23, 2012

Committee to Stop FBI Repression condemns unjust sentences for 3 young Muslims in North Carolina

The Committee to Stop FBI Repression condemns the sentencing last week of three young Muslim men in North Carolina to between 15 and 45 years in prison each. Before sentencing, the judge noted that she had received hundreds of letters in support of the three men urging her to hand down the minimum sentence. Despite this, Ziyad Yaghi, Omar Aly Hassan, and Hysen Sherifi received nearly maximum sentences for a ‘terrorism’ case. Even the LA Times was critical because “prosecutors named no targeted victims…places, times or dates of attacks.”

At no time was a specific plot to harm anyone presented to the jury. Instead the U.S. prosecutor focused on the ideas held by the defendants. This includes opposition to the Iraq war, and verbal support for the Iraqi resistance in the case of Omar Aly Hassan, as well as on their Islamic faith. The U.S. Prosecutor said “corrupted ideology was the substance of the conspiracy” and that the defendants intended to wage “jihad”.

Jurors were visibly confused and misled during the proceedings. During the trial, transcripts of audio recordings were presented to the jury, much of which was in Arabic or in English with some religious terms used. Playing just two minutes of audio recordings sometimes required 20 minutes of translation and explanation of Islamic terminology. The paid federal informants were often the ones translating terms for the jury, even though many of these terms, like “jihad” for example, have multiple and complex meanings and interpretations.

Over 900 footnotes were in the transcript to translate these terms. There were no Muslims among the mostly white jury in one of the more conservative counties of North Carolina.

During the trial, prosecutors focused on inflammatory remarks made by the defendants in posts to Facebook and other social media. The defendants expressed regret at some of the posts made when they were teenagers. Before he heard his sentence Omar Aly Hassan said “I did make mistakes in my life, I did say some dumb things, but I am no terrorist.”

It is highly unlikely that non-Muslims would currently be convicted or sentenced to life in prison for making the same comments.

Preemptive prosecution, abusing the judicial system

Yaghi, Hassan, and Sherifi were tried and convicted thanks to the U.S. government’s use of “preemptive prosecution”. Preemptive prosecution means the U.S. government will target individuals based on what they say or believe, rather than what they have done. Defense attorneys were unable to convince the jurors, who were at times sleeping and disinterested, that the evidence presented was well within the defendants’ first amendment rights to free speech. Much of the evidence presented was from audio conversations between paid federal informants and other alleged co-conspirators. One defendant, Ziyad Yaghi, is not heard anywhere in the 750 hours of audio surveillance entered as evidence in the case; the Hassan family says that Omar Aly was not on any of the tapes either. Yet they are now imprisoned for decades.

The Committee to Stop FBI Repression joins with other civil liberties organizations and the defendants’ families in condemning the unjust conviction and sentencing. It is a horrible miscarriage of justice that condemns three young men to life in prison by playing up Islamophobia in the courtroom and an FBI and U.S. government intent on finding terrorists where there are not any.