By Bill Fisher
I write a lot of stories, news mostly. They’re carried by InterPress News Service. I’ve been doing this for a very long time, so I’m usually able to separate myself from what I’m writing about so I don’t get emotionally involved.
But there are those times when I find myself getting so angry over the subject of the story I’m writing that I can’t write it.
Usually, when that happens, I distract myself. I write another story. I watch a ballgame. I play some old standards on the piano. Something.
But this time, none of my usual distractions helped very much. I am still angry; in fact, I am furious. Furious enough to try to tell this story. Here goes:
This is a story about a fellow named Syed Fahad Hashmi. For the last close to three years, this guy has been living in solitary confinement in a federal lockup, awaiting a trial.
He is under 24-hour video and audio surveillance, even when he uses the toilet. He eats all his meals in his small cell. He is not allowed to communicate with other prisoners. He is a Muslim but is not allowed to participate in group prayer. He is not allowed to phone anyone but his lawyer. He did not even have his free choice of that lawyer and had to take one approved by the government.
The newspapers he receives have whole sections cut out of them by the government. They are always at least a month old. Once a day, for an hour, he is taken to another room where he remains in isolation. He cannot read any translated documents unless the translator is pre-approved by the government. Contact with the media is forbidden.
For one hour every other week, one member of his family can “visit” through a heavy screen. No touching or hugging is allowed or possible. Sometimes the government takes away his family visits as punishment. He once lost his visits for three months; he was seen shadow boxing in his cell and when asked what he was doing his response apparently failed to pass muster with the authorities.
Who is Syed Fahad Hashmi? Well, for starters, he’s an American citizen. He grew up in Queens and attended Brooklyn College. He is an outspoken Muslim activist. Does that mean he’s a terrorist? Only if you’re Steve King.
After Brooklyn College, where Hashmi’s profs remember him as a guy who loved to engage in debate, he moved to London where he earned a master’s degree in international relations. And that’s where his current troubles began.
An acquaintance from America phoned him at his London apartment and asked if he could stay with Hashmi. He brought a suitcase, later discovered to be filled with raincoats, ponchos and socks.
Now Hashmi was accused of being involved with al Qaeda because the government claims that the rain gear in the suitcase was “military gear” reportedly headed for Afghanistan. Hashmi also allowed his cell phone to be used, and whoever used it allegedly contacted some bad guys from al Qaeda.
Hashmi was arrested based on the testimony of Junaid Babar, an informant attempting to get a reduction in his own 70-year prison sentence. This was the guy who had briefly stayed in Hashmi’s apartment in London
So, because of a suitcase full of raingear, and a cellphone allegedly used by someone to contact some unsavory dudes, an American citizen is held in solitary confinement for almost three years?
The answer is yes – which will be totally counter-intuitive to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the U.S. Constitution. Fashmi is held under Justice Department rules known as SAMs – Special Administrative Measures. He is held so he won’t escape. He is held so he can’t contact any Al Qaeda operatives.
Now, I have no idea whether Hashmi is guilty or not. That’s why we have trials.
But what about the Constitution? What about the presumption of innocence until proven guilty? What about the Constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial? And an attorney of our choice?
Those rules are evidently abandoned the instant someone utters the words Al Qaeda.
And how about the proscription against cruel and unusual punishment? Does three years in solitary sound “cruel” and “unusual?”
Well, the medical testimony presented in this case concluded that “after 60 days in solitary people’s mental state begins to break down.” According to Bill Quigley of the Center for Constitutional Rights, “That means a person will start to experience panic, anxiety, confusion, headaches, heart palpitations, sleep problems, withdrawal, anger, depression, despair, and over-sensitivity. Over time this can lead to severe psychiatric trauma and harms like psychosis, distortion of reality, hallucinations, mass anxiety and acute confusion. Essentially, the mind disintegrates.”
That’s why extended isolation is banned by international treaties as a form of torture. Just ask John McCain whether his life in solitary confinement affected his mind.
Meanwhile, Hashmi’s case has become something of a cause celebre. His supporters have staged demonstrations outside his jail, launched a website (www.freefahad.com) and worked to alert the public to his plight. And prominent figures such as Nat Hentoff, Amy Goodman, Chris Hedges and his old Brooklyn College professor, Jeanne Theoharris, have all written articles about Hashmi and his vanishing Constitutional guarantees.
Now, finally, Hashmi has a trial date – April 28. He will be tried for conspiring to send money and military gear — socks and rainproof ponchos — to al Qaeda associates in Pakistan.
And my lawyer friends tell me that the way the “material support” statute is written, you could convict a ham sandwich of supporting al Qaeda.
If this case didn’t make you angry, you need to take a refresher course in American History or Civics 101.
And you need to do it right away! Before the Constitution disappears altogether.