WASHINGTON, DC – The US government’s prosecution of terrorism cases in America since 9/11 has been fraught with widespread human rights abuses adding up to an enduring miscarriage of justice that has had a chilling effect on American Muslim communities, according to a recently released study.
Many of the 500 terrorism cases prosecuted in US federal courts since 2001 appear to have targeted individuals who were not actually involved in terrorist plots or financing them and likely would not have committed acts of violence, according to the report by Human Rights Watch and the Columbia University Law School’s Human Rights Institute.
“Five hundred is a number that sounds really big and it makes it sound like Americans are being kept safe from terrorism attacks, but we found that in a lot of these cases, people were prosecuted who never would have committed a terrorist act in the first place if it weren’t for the involvement of the FBI,” said Andrea J Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at HRW and a co-author of the report.
‘Illusion of justice’
The report, titled “Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions,” details a pattern of US law enforcement targeting American Arabs and Muslims in FBI “sting” operations in which informants cajoled, pressured, and sometimes even bribed young men to participate in plots created by law enforcement. The sweeping laws enacted by Congress after 9/11 helped create a conducive atmosphere, according to critics.
People hear about how these prosecutions are unfolding, the narratives the government has been putting forward and feel there is no real way to protect yourself, that your statements will always be taken out of context.
“The report details account after account of overzealous prosecution, unfair trials, over-aggressive informants, targeting of vulnerable young men, and encouraging them to do things they wouldn’t have otherwise done and then incredibly long, harsh sentences,” said David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law School who specialises in national security issues.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, the Department of Justice’s spokesman Marc Raimondi said that many of the decisions the report criticises were lawful and approved by federal judges.
Further, the DOJ statement said the US Supreme Court has “upheld as constitutional” the material support statute under which about half of the 500 US terrorism convictions were obtained according to Human Rights Watch.
“I think the government’s view is, if we are getting convictions and they are being upheld on appeal and we haven’t had another serious terrorist attack in the United States, you know, we must be doing something right,” Cole said.
“I don’t see any recognition from government officials that they are going too far.”
The HRW report’s publication comes at a time of increasingly critical treatment in the media of the government’s use of FBI undercover agents in counterterrorism cases.
On July 20, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit released the documentary “Informants”, based on the investigative reporting of Trevor Aaronson, on the shadowy world of FBI informants who work to ensnare young Muslim men in purported terror plots.
Two days later, HBO aired “The Newburgh Sting”, a documentary by filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, telling the story of how four street criminals with no history of violence or ties to al-Qaeda were drawn into an FBI orchestrated plot to bomb Jewish synagogues and fire missiles at US military aircraft.
‘Government-created terrorism plots’
The report is the result of a two-year study of 27 specific cases ranging in time from 2001 to more recent events. Researchers focused on cases where rights abuses were suspected, conducted 215 interviews with individuals, and sought records under the Freedom of Information Act.
Among the report’s findings:
- Discriminatory investigations targeting vulnerable people with government informants who actively developed the alleged plot, persuading or pressuring the target to participate and providing the money and resources to carry it out.
- Use of overly broad material support charges that punish behaviour that did not demonstrate intent to support terrorism.
- Prosecutorial tactics that violate fair trial rights, including introduction of prejudicial evidence, evidence obtained through coercion or torture, classified evidence that cannot be fairly contested, inflammatory evidence about terrorism to which defendants are not connected and secret surveillance.
- Harsh and at times abusive prison conditions, including prolonged solitary confinement with restrictions on communicating with family and lawyers.
- Excessive lengthening of sentences and draconian conditions post-sentencing.
“Taken together, these patterns have contributed to cases in which individuals who perhaps would never have participated in a terrorist act on their own initiative and might not even had the capacity to do so, were prosecuted for serious, yet government-created, terrorism plots,” the report says.
A 2011 case involves the FBI sting of Rezwan Ferdaus, who lived at home with his parents near Boston and suffered from mental ailments.
He was arrested in dramatic fashion by the FBI and accused of planning to crash explosive-filled remote control aeroplanes into the US Capitol and the Pentagon.
The FBI provided the fake weaponry and funded Ferdaus’ travel. Ferdaus was so ill as the alleged plot unfolded – suffering from weight loss, seizures, and loss of bladder control – that his father had to quit work to care for him.
He was 26 at the time of his arrest and is serving a 17-year sentence.
Uzair Paracha was held in solitary confinement for nearly two years before he was convicted of providing material support for a terrorist group for trying to help a friend from Pakistan, who was allegedly tied to al-Qaeda, gain entry to the US.
Paracha was held under special, national security administrative procedures.
“You could spend days to weeks without uttering anything significant beyond ‘please cut my lights’ and ‘can I get a legal call/toilet paper/a razor, etc, or just thanking them for shutting our light,” Paracha wrote the report’s authors. He is serving a 30-year jail sentence.
In another case that has raised particular alarm within US Muslim communities, Adel Daoud was just 17, living with his parents and attending an Islamic high school in a Chicago suburb when FBI undercover agents solicited him online to engage in a fake plan to attack a bar in downtown Chicago.
He goes on trial in November and faces life behind bars.
“From our experiences working with communities here in New York City, the use of informants and concerns about surveillance have a deeply chilling effect on the community,” Diala Shamas, a fellow at the City University of New York law enforcement accountability project, told Al Jazeera.
“People hear about how these prosecutions are unfolding, the narratives the government has been putting forward and feel there is no real way to protect yourself, that your statements will always be taken out of context,” Shamas said.
The report recommends the US limit the use of informants to situations where there is already a specific suspicion of wrongdoing.
Instead of aggressive investigations, the report recommends agencies develop “rights-respecting” partnerships with local community groups. It calls for reforms to harsh prison conditions including an end to prolonged solitary confinement.
It seeks revisions to the enforcement of material support laws so that freedom of expression and charitable giving are protected.
“We are taking this report to Congress [where] we hope that there will be hearings,” Prasow told Al Jazeera.