When most people hear about terrorism suspects being held for years without trial or sentencing, hidden away from the press and human rights groups, they think of Guantanamo. Many of these prisoners are in fact housed in scattered federal facilities across the US — including one in downtown Manhattan.
Monday evening, a human rights coalition called No Separate Justice will hold its third monthly vigil outside of New York’s MetropolitanCorrectional Center (MCC), a blocky beige complex wedged between the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge where high-security inmates and terrorism suspects often await trial for years. The vigils are meant to call attention to conditions that the coalition says are inhumane.
No Separate Justice resulted from meetings between Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Center for American-Islamic Relations that took place throughout 2013. The organizations cite concerns that the MCC is tantamount to a “black site” meaning the facility, and its inmates, are purposefully cut off from the press and concerned citizens.
Many of the inmates held in the MCC’s highest-security wing, known as 10 South, are under “special administrative measures” that keep an inmate from communicating directly or indirectly with the news media, severely limit an inmate’s contact with relatives, and even ban an inmate from reading newspapers.
In 2011, Amnesty International sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder expressing concern that conditions in the MCC’s 10 South unit did not meet international standards for humane treatment of prisoners.
Brooklyn College graduate Rabia Ahsin Tarar, who joined No Separate Justice in January, told VICE News that about 70 people showed up in bitter cold to the first vigil in February.
“MCC is both a symbolic and a very real manifestation of the post 9/11 erosion of human rights,” Tarar said. “Whatever happens at MCC represents things that happened at the federal supermax prison in Colorado and other federal facilities. You have these prisoners in dehumanizing situations.”
On Friday evening, Tarar was part of a crowd that had gathered for a lecture at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. Jeanne Theoharis, a Brooklyn College professor specializing in civil rights, and the writer Arun Kundnani were speaking about the criminalization of Muslim communities in the United States. Some in the crowd shared stories about being stopped in airports and of mothers telling their Muslim sons not to wear beards to avoid being targeted by the authorities.
Theoharis co-founded the group Educators for Civil Liberties after one of her students, Syed Fahad Hashmi, was arrested in 2006 and charged with providing material support to al Qaeda.
Hashmi, who grew up in Queens, moved to London after graduation, where he received a master’s degree in international relations shortly before being arrested and eventually extradited to the US. He was charged because he let a friend stay at his London apartment — a friend who later delivered asuitcase full of raincoats and socksto an alleged al Qaeda member.
For the crime of letting a friend couch-surf, Hashmi was placed in extreme solitary confinement at MCC for three years. He pled guilty in 2010 to one charge of conspiracy to provide support to al Qaeda and was sentenced to 15 years at a federal supermax prison in Colorado, where he remains in solitary.
After her lecture, Theoharis told VICE News that human rights abuses of high-security inmates are something the public associates mostly with Guantanamo.
“In trying to reveal what’s happening overseas, the misperception was that what was happening here within the law was fair and equal,” Theoharis said. “But the law also becomes a tool for rights abridgement. There’s this deferring to the government’s claims and national security requests happening through the courts.”
Arun Kundnani, whose latest book is The Muslims Are Coming!, said that the Muslim community faces a catch-22 when it comes to speaking out against the problems of surveillance and incarceration that have plagued them since the attacks on the World Trade Center.
“The mere possibility of surveillance is going to hamper your behavior and lead you to self-censor and think twice about going to that demonstration,” said Kundnani. “People feel very anxious about getting involved in political activity.”
The Pentagon’s Defense Human Resources Activity, describes terrorists as the products of “radicalization.”
Kundnani says that this model clashes with human rights when law enforcement considers non-violent activism to be a step toward terrorist ideology, and when law enforcement actively pushes someone to commit extreme and violent acts that they otherwise wouldn’t have done.
“The FBI is fantasizing into existence the kind of terrorist threat they are accusing,” said Kundnani. “For the last ten years we’ve had this very systematic and organized set of images telling us that Muslim political activism represents a process of radicalization toward becoming a terrorist, rather than the exercise of a citizen’s rights.”
Hashmi appears to be a great example of a terrorist “fantasized into existence.” Theoharis says he was a student activist.
“They have video of him at demonstrations at Brooklyn College, and we know the NYPD sent informants inside the Brooklyn College Islamic Society and other CUNY student Muslim groups,” said Theoharis.
Tarar’s friends from school remember Hashmi. She said that although “the fear is always there,” she remains committed.
“I wouldn’t be that surprised if anything were to happen to me. But at the end of the day, I’m still going to advocate, because it’s something that I have to do,” said Tarar.