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RIGHTS-US: Suit Challenges Ultra-Restrictive Prison Units

William Fisher

NEW YORK, Apr 5 2010 (IPS) - Two U.S. federal prisons are being used overwhelmingly to hold Muslim prisoners and prisoners with unpopular political beliefs, and are practicing religious profiling, retaliation and arbitrary punishment, according to a lawsuit filed by the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR).

The suit names U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department, the agency that houses the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) which runs the two units, one in Terre Haute, Indiana, the other in Marion, Illinois.

“These units are an experiment in social isolation,” said CCR Attorney Alexis Agathocleous. “People are being put in these extraordinarily restrictive units without being told why and without any meaningful review.”

At the same time, some prisoners at the experimental “Communications Management Units” (CMUs) are protesting their being designated as “terrorists” by the Justice Department, despite never having been convicted of any terror-related crime.

One such prisoner is Dr. Rafil Dhafir, an American Iraqi-born upstate-New York oncologist. He was arrested by 85 federal agents who descended on his home, handcuffing him in his driveway. Then Attorney General John D. Ashcroft referred to him as a terrorism supporter.

Dhafir was convicted in 2005 and sentenced to 22 years in prison for violating the Iraqi sanctions by sending money to Iraq through his charity, “Help the Needy”, and for fraud, money laundering, tax evasion, and a variety of other nonviolent crimes. Five other people, including his wife, had already pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the case.


In the period leading up to his trial, political figures strove to paint Dhafir with a broad terrorist brush. Then New York State governor George E. Pataki described Dhafir’s as a “money laundering case to help terrorist organisations…conduct horrible acts.”

The New York Times reported that prosecutors hinted at national security reasons for holding Dhafir without bail.

Federal prosecutors heralded his arrest as another blow in the Justice Department’s war on terrorism. However, they never filed any charges related to terrorism nor did they prove any link to terrorists.

In a letter to a supporter, obtained by IPS, Dr. Dhafir wrote, “I am really upset about the lies concerning the DOJ list. I have every intention of going after them to correct this falsehood by any legal means. I think that we should publicise this as much as possible and ask people to protest these lies. I also ask your input regarding how to remedy this travesty.”

The CCR lawsuit is challenging violations of fundamental constitutional rights, including the right to due process, at the two CMUs. It was brought on behalf of five current and former prisoners, and the spouses of two prisoners.

The experimental prison units were created in 2006 and 2007, during the administration of George W. Bush. They were designed to isolate certain prisoners from the rest of the prison population and the outside world.

Between 65 and 72 percent of CMU prisoners are Muslim men, a fact that attorneys say demonstrates that the CMUs were created to allow for the segregation and restrictive treatment of Muslims based on the discriminatory belief that such prisoners are more likely than others to pose a threat to prison security.

Other prisoners appear to be transferred to the CMU because of other protected First Amendment activity, such as speaking out on social justice issues or filing grievances in prison or court regarding conditions and abuse.

“In addition to heavily restricted telephone and visitation access, CMU prisoners are categorically denied any physical contact with family members and are forbidden from hugging, touching or embracing their children or spouses during visits. Attorneys say this blanket ban on contact visitation, which is unique in the federal prison system, not only causes suffering to the families of the incarcerated men, but is a violation of fundamental constitutional rights,” the CCR says.

According to the Bureau of Prisons, the 76 inmates housed in the isolation units are there to prevent them from furthering acts of terrorism.

But civil liberties advocates say the extreme conditions in the CMUs amount to abuse and that the programme violates the inmates’ constitutional rights. The BOP says CMUs were set up after authorities discovered that some Islamic militants were able to send messages abroad from their prison cells.

 
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