The case of a Somali-born man who was stripped of his British citizenship and recently sentenced in New York to nine years in federal prison on terrorism charges is being held up by civil liberties advocates as an example of the harsh US treatment of suspects linked to Islamic extremism and overreach by American authorities in the war on terror.
Mahdi Hashi, 26, pleaded guilty in May 2015 to a charge of conspiracy to provide material support to the Somali militant group al Shabaab. Prosecutors sought a 15-year sentence, maintaining he had deep ties to al Shabaab's leadership, as well as links to alleged suicide bombers used by the group. Hashi's co-defendants, Swedish citizens Ali Yasin Ahmed and Mohamed Yusuf, were each sentenced to 11 years in January.
While handing down Hashi's nine-year sentence in Brooklyn on Friday, US District Judge John Gleeson called the facts of the case "complicated."
"I believe you believe this organization you joined was dramatically different than what you thought or hoped it would be," the judge said.
Hashi's case caused significant controversy in Britain, where he lived from age six until he returned to Somalia as a young adult. In 2012, after he was already living abroad, Hashi was stripped of his British citizenship. "The Security Service assess that you have been involved in Islamicist extremism [sic] and present a risk to the national security of the United Kingdom due to your extremist activities," said the order from British Home Secretary Theresa May.
His lawyers have challenged the move, arguing that it makes Hashi stateless, but so far their appeals have been unsuccessful.
Later in the summer of 2012, Hashi was arrested in Djibouti, the tiny nation sandwiched between Somalia and Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa, where he maintains he was threatened with physical abuse and rape if he refused to cooperate with interrogators. Hashi and his co-defendants also claim they were questioned in Djibouti by unidentified US agents, always with a member of the Djiboutian Secret Police in the room, according to court documents submitted by his defense.
In November 2012, Hashi and his co-defendants were transferred to American custody without any formal extradition proceedings. He first appeared in New York federal court to face terrorism charges the following month.
'Does the United States really intend to prosecute thousands of al Shabaab fighters and countless others engaged in various conflicts abroad in American courts?'
In a statement issued shortly after the sentencing on Friday, Diego Rodriguez, director-in-charge of the FBI's New York field office, said Hashi "joined a foreign terrorist organization to be part of a group utilizing violence to fulfill their agenda."
It's unclear whether the UK and the US shared intelligence about Hashi's whereabouts or coordinated his extrajudicial transfer to US custody. A story published last fall by The Intercept raised questions about whether the UK was complicit in the US drone strikes that killed Bilal Berjawi and Mohamed Sakr, former British citizens who knew Hashi and were also stripped of their UK citizenship.
Watch the VICE News documentary Somalia: The Fight Against al Shabaab:
For the UK-based advocacy group CAGE, Hashi's ordeal reveals how little US policies in the war on terror have changed under President Barack Obama, despite his efforts to close Guantanamo Bay and promises to restore the rule of law.
"There remain a number of answered questions for both the British and American authorities to answer," said CAGE spokesman Ibrahim Mohamoud. "There needs to be real accountability of how and why a London care worker was kidnapped, tortured and renditioned across the globe to face trial in a foreign court."
Hashi's lawyers also say their client has been housed in almost total isolation for the last three years at New York's Metropolitan Correctional Center, a high-security federal jail known as "Little Gitmo" that is located just behind City Hall in Lower Manhattan. Hashi and his co-defendants also faced a ban on contact visits with their attorneys and strict restrictions on reading materials — to the point that they were even barred from reading spy novels.
In an April 2014 interview about Hashi's case with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, UN special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez said Hashi may have been placed in extreme isolation in order to induce a guilty plea.
"[Solitary confinement] in pre-trial detention is particularly objectionable because the pain and suffering of a mental or psychological nature that the person suffers prepares him psychologically to either confess or make statements against his interests, or even plead guilty," Mendez said. "It seems to me that in terrorism cases, at least, that's a very deliberate policy of the United States."
One final issue centers on the US government's decision to prosecute Hashi, given that he is not an American citizen and was not charged with planning attacks on US soil or endangering US citizens. In a sentencing memo submitted to the court, US Attorney Robert Capers acknowledged that "the government admittedly is not aware of information to indicate that [Hashi and his co-defendants] posed a specific threat to any Americans."
Capers stressed, however, that "collective efforts" by Hashi and his fellow defendants served to "strengthen al Shabaab," which, the prosecutor said, "unquestionably increased the strength and numbers of a great dedicated to the destruction of the United States and its allies."
Hashi's case is particularly significant given the deep anxiety in the US about the threat posed by foreign fighters, including Europeans who travel abroad to join the Islamic State or other militant groups. Arjun Sethi, an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University and expert on human rights issues in post-9/11 America, suggested that the case is an example of mission creep by US authorities.
"The prosecution of Hashi for material support of terrorism shows just how expansive the war on terror has become," he said. "Does the United States really intend to prosecute thousands of al Shabaab fighters and countless others engaged in various conflicts abroad in American courts?"
Editor's Note: The author previously worked for CAGE from 2010 to 2013 as a US Researcher.
Follow Aviva Stahl on Twitter: @stahlidarity