A very interesting trial, pretty much ignored by the mainstream media, is now taking place in a federal court in Albany, New York. 

Yassin M. Aref, a Kurdish immigrant and imam of an Albany mosque, and Mohammed Hossain, a naturalized citizen from Bangladesh, were arrested by the FBI in August 2004 in a case that smacked of entrapment and guilt by association.  This arrest occurred around the same time as the arrest of four Detroit Arab-Americans who were supposedly members of a terrorist “sleeper cell.”  The Detroit case fell apart when it was discovered that a key witness fabricated damning evidence as part of a plea bargain. 

The Albany case involves a sting operation using an FBI informant, a Pakistani businessman whose services were procured in exchange for a reduced sentence for a document-fraud conviction.  Hossain, the owner of rental property and a pizza-shop, approached the informant about a business loan.  In response, the informant, pretending to be a part-time arms dealer, offered to give Hossain $5000 if he would “hold” $50,000 for him, money that he claimed came from the sale of a shoulder-fired missile that would be used to kill a Pakistani diplomat in New York City.  A farfetched story, but Hossain believed it and agreed to hold the money for him in exchange for the $5000.  I am guessing that from Hossain’s perspective, he was not only getting a loan without interest, but he was getting a loan with a $5000 bonus, and, at the time, he was supposedly looking for a way to bail out his ailing pizza shop.  Aref’s role in this whole affair was limited—he merely witnessed the transaction and wrote up receipts.  But both men were charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization, money laundering, and conspiracy.  The informant had claimed to be working for Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistani-based group that the feds list as a terrorist organization. 

But why were these men targeted in the first place?  Apparently, Aref was the one that they were really after.  First, he had been a member of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan.  The Islamic Movement, although it supposedly gets money form Iranian backers, is a legitimate political party, not a terrorist organization.  But Aref failed to indicate his prior affiliation with the party on his visa and residency applications, something that he was required to do.  Second, he allegedly had connections to a splinter group of the IMK called Ansar al-Islam, a Taliban-like group of Muslim extremists who have supposedly used suicide bombs against their own people.  The established connections are based on association—phone numbers and addresses found in notebooks and an acquaintance with the group’s leader.  He also made some calls to a number in Syria that allegedly had connections to Al-Qaeda.  Some controversial journal entries were also found, and those were addressed during the most recent day of trial.  Aref claims that, in his journal, he recorded the words of others without endorsing what they had to say.   

But the point is that, regardless what these guys thought or believed and regardless who they knew, they hadn’t done anything illegal and, as far as anyone knows, had no plans to do anything illegal until the FBI conducted its sting operation.  Hossain, at least, had been living in the Albany area since 1999, and both were known to neighbors as quiet family men.  Furthermore, the motive for laundering the money seemed more financial than political.  What did the government hope to accomplish here?  If the goal was to get suspected terrorists or terrorist sympathizers off the streets, then I suppose that it was accomplished, but the US government is sliding down a slippery slope when it entraps one of its own citizens (Hossain) on mere suspicion.  And Hossain didn’t even seem to be the one that had the suspicious connections. 

This case is coming to trial two years after the arrest and at the same time that Congress is considering the new detainee bill.  Now, one of the provisions of that bill is that a person can now be considered an “enemy combatant” if he is materially supporting terrorist activity.  According to Human Rights Watch: 

The latest version of the legislation includes an extremely dangerous expansion in the bill’s definition of “unlawful enemy combatant” – a phrase used by the administration to justify holding a combatant outside of the usual protections given to combatants by the Geneva Conventions. It now explicitly deems persons who have “purposefully and materially supported” hostilities against the United States to be combatants, an unprecedented redefinition of “combatant” that could potentially cover a range of innocent people. Financing and support for terrorist activities are already criminal offenses in the civilian justice system. This definition would pervert any reasonable concept of what a combatant is.   

And, under another provision of this bill, if Hossain had been arrested outside of the United States, he would, as an enemy combatant, lose his right to habeas corpus, even though he is an American citizen.  In other words, he would lose his right to challenge his arrest and detention.   According to the Center for Constitutional Rights,   “. . .  the courts would also be barred from hearing the habeas petitions of any future detainees. A simple determination that someone-even a U.S. citizen taken into custody abroad-is an ‘enemy combatant’ would be enough to detain them indefinitely.”

When these men were first arrested about two years ago, much was made in the local and national media about the possibility that they had been entrapped.  Now, of course, that has been forgotten.   

It’s not that I have so much sympathy for terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, it’s more that I want to protect my basic constitutional rights, and I want to promote the same kinds of rights for people all over the world, whether they are our enemies or not.  I cannot justifiably advocate for myself unless I am willing to advocate for others in the same way.  As Thomas Paine said,  “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”