Headlines, Human Rights, North America

Q&A: Treatment of New York Detainee Is “Legalised Torture”

William Fisher interviews DR. JEANNE THEOHARIS

NEW YORK, Apr 15 2010 (IPS) - For the past almost three years, a U.S. citizen, Syed Fahad Hashmi, has been held in isolation in a federal detention centre in New York City.

Jeanne Theoharis Credit: Courtesy of Jeanne Theoharis

Jeanne Theoharis Credit: Courtesy of Jeanne Theoharis

He is suspected of conspiring to provide “material support” to al Qaeda. The government’s evidence is a suitcase full of raingear left by a visitor to his London apartment. The government charges that the raingear was for delivery to al Qaeda operatives, and that Hashmi let his visitor use his cellphone.

Hashmi 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.

The month-old newspapers he receives have whole sections cut out of them 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. In 2008, he lost his visits for three months and has not had family visits since December. Sometimes the government does not allow his family to see him when they arrive at the prison because the FBI translator is not there.

Hashmi’s trial is finally scheduled for Apr. 28, and the government’s star witness against him is the man who left the raingear in Hashmi’s London apartment, and who has already been sentenced to a long prison term but is using his testimony to reduce his sentence.

IPS correspondent William Fisher discussed the case with Dr. Jeanne Theoharis, the Brooklyn College professor who was Hashmi’s teacher in 2002, and is one of those most outraged by Hashmi’s treatment.

Q: How do you remember Hashmi as one of your students? A: He was a student of mine in 2002. He took the senior capstone seminar in political science with me. That year, the course I taught was on post-civil rights racial politics, which focused on civil rights from the 1960s to the present. He loved to talk and debate other students – and seemed to have a rather optimistic view of the power of debate to change people’s minds.

It is a small course where students are required to do a research paper. He did his on the treatment of Muslim groups in the United States post-9/11 and – ironically or perhaps not – described the violations of civil liberties that Muslim groups of various political positions were facing. Now that paper he did with me is being lived out in lower Manhattan, and it is his rights that have been violated.

Q: The next time you saw him (after graduation) he was in custody and there was a court hearing. How did he seem to you? A: Over the course of the past two years seeing him at these court hearings, his mental health appears to have declined. He now appears considerably less focused and more jittery. He used to pay attention to everything happening in court, constantly talking to his lawyer and for the brief moments entering and leaving court, making eye contact and smiling at people in the audience.

He now seems much more withdrawn, sometimes just keeping his head down the whole time. This certainly corresponds to the research on the effects of prolonged solitary confinement, which documents this kind of degradation of people’s mental health.

Q: Did his lawyer put up a robust defense against the imposition of the special administrative measures (SAMs)? A: Yes, his defence has challenged the SAMs on multiple occasions, including introducing medical and scholarly evidence of the damage that prolonged solitary confinement has on a person.

The judge was unconcerned and ruled against every defence motion seeking to address the SAMs. She has refused even to make modest changes. She has determined the SAMs to be “administrative and not punitive” and thus constitutional. Judges – and particularly this judge, Loretta Preska – seem to be allowing the government wide latitude in imposing these inhumane measures.

These SAMs are legalised torture. The levels of isolation and sensory deprivation are dehumanising. They go against international standards and have been shown in medical and scholarly research to have a severe impact on a person’s mental health and stability. And they severely impact the ability of a person to participate effectively in his or her own defence.

Q: Do you think Hashmi will get a fair trial? A: No, his right to a fair trial has already been severely compromised by the SAMs, and also by the use of “classified” evidence legalised through the Classified Information Procedures Act. As a U.S. citizen, Hashmi has not been allowed to review all the evidence against him. We are hoping to salvage justice in his case. But three years of solitary confinement and severe isolation have made a fair trial impossible.

We have begun to have a public conversation in this country about torture but not addressed this crucial aspect of it happening right here in the federal system, and, in Hashmi’s case, right here in New York City. While there has been public attention to the use of torture for intelligence gathering, we have missed the use of torture to gain convictions – as a way for the government’s lawyers to demonstrate the success of U.S. law enforcement and federal prosecution in the “war on terror”.

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