On November 18, a New York judge threw out the convictions of Muhammad Aziz and Khalil Islam, 55 years after the two men were convicted of the February 1965 assassination of Malcolm X. A two-year investigation by the Manhattan district attorney’s office revealed that both the New York Police Department and the FBI failed to disclose exculpatory information about the men, which likely would have led to their acquittal.
Judge Ellen Biben, who presided over the hearing, spoke about the “serious miscarriages of justice”, while district attorney, Cyrus Vance, apologised for “serious unacceptable violations of the law and the public trust” by the FBI and the NYPD, and stated that the defendants did not receive a fair trial and their convictions must be vacated.
The men’s exoneration was not a surprise. Historians, journalists, and legal scholars have known for decades that the two men were innocent, while the men themselves have long maintained their innocence. The surprise was that the NYPD and FBI had kept silent about their exculpatory information, apparently content to see two innocent men framed and incarcerated for decades for a crime they did not commit. Black and other marginalised communities have also learned over the decades not to trust the FBI, given the agency’s well-documented history of targeting and animus against them.
Yet, this shocking perversion of justice raises serious questions: Were the real killers working with the FBI? And is that why the FBI withheld the information? What does it say that the only witnesses who placed Aziz and Islam at the scene of the crime were FBI informants? We do not know the answers because the NYPD and FBI still lack transparency.
The hidden exculpatory evidence was presumably gathered covertly as part of the notorious FBI counterintelligence programme from the 1950s to the 1970s known as COINTELPRO. It sought to “neutralise” Black power leaders through illegal tactics such as surveillance, infiltration, and disruption. For those familiar with these abuses and this era more broadly, the FBI’s questionable role in this case was unsurprising.
US Representative Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther leader from Chicago, immediately pointed the finger at the FBI for the wrongful convictions. In a November 18 statement, he said, “I am struck by this most dastardly and evil fact that two men suffered decades of imprisonment as a result of the active collaboration and treachery of J Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Malcolm X was a shining example of Black American manhood and humanity. For his opposite, J Edgar Hoover – a low life – to be at the centre of his assassination is indeed an American tragedy and flies in the face of Malcolm’s high ethical standards. There are still questions that must be answered regarding Malcolm’s assassination. Who knew what, and when did they know it?”
Indeed, if the FBI had a hand in Malcolm X’s assassination, it would not be their first assassination. The FBI has now paid substantial damages for participating in the COINTELPRO assassinations of Black Panther Party activists Fred Hampton and Mark Clark on December 4, 1969. And the FBI has acknowledged allowing Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt to be convicted of murder in 1972 and spending almost 30 years in jail, while they silently held evidence from their COINTELPRO surveillance that he was 400 miles (640km) away at the time of the murder.
The “discovery” of exculpatory material in Malcolm X’s murder suggests that the FBI must immediately conduct an independent review of all their COINTELPRO files to determine what other cases might be affected and what other innocent defendants might be freed.
The lack of transparency about Malcolm X’s murder becomes even more troubling when we consider the FBI’s conduct in the war on terror. After the 9/11 attacks, the FBI was tasked with preventing the next attack supposedly being organised by vast networks of terrorists in the US.
The FBI used the broad powers of the national security apparatus to surveil Muslims and other marginalised communities, and soon discovered that there were virtually no terrorist networks in the US. All of the surveillance that went on for some two decades failed to uncover a single terrorist plot.
Yet instead of declaring that terrorism was not coming from the American-Muslim community, the FBI set out to manufacture terrorists from innocent Muslims to prove their false premise of a looming threat. Hundreds of Muslims were preemptively prosecuted, charged for engaging in constitutionally-protected activities like speech or charity. Others were entrapped by offers of money, or suffered from mental illness and were manipulated into to participating in FBI terrorism schemes.
The FBI placed innocent Muslims on the no-fly list, in order to force them to become informants against their own communities. It is now reported that the FBI’s secret informants committed more than 22,000 crimes during the last decade which cost taxpayers $42m on average per year.
Former FBI agent and whistleblower Terry Albury said about his time investigating Muslims:
“There is this mythology surrounding the war on terrorism, and the F.B.I., that has given agents the power to ruin the lives of completely innocent people based solely on what part of the world they come from, or what religion they practice or the color of their skin. And I did that. I helped to destroy people. For 17 years […] We’ve built this entire apparatus and convinced the world that there is a terrorist in every mosque and that every newly arrived Muslim immigrant is secretly anti-American, and because we have promoted that false notion, we have to validate it […] It was made very clear from Day 1 that the enemy was not just a tiny group of disaffected Muslims. Islam itself was the enemy […] I have serious and legitimate concerns about the FBI’s tactics in the Muslim community as it pertains to entrapment, baseless investigation, and intimidation of prospective informants. I am also deeply concerned with its institutional policies that turn a blind eye to the daily denial of the most basic freedoms we all hold dear.”
In practice, the FBI’s policies had disastrous effects on Muslim communities. When it became known that mosques and their members were under intense electronic and physical surveillance, Muslims were forced to self-censor, avoiding conversations with strangers or even close friends who might be FBI informants, or struggling about what to share on social media.
Families of Muslims wrongfully accused of terrorism were often shunned by their communities. Careers were destroyed by false FBI accusations and lengthy incarcerations. Yet the FBI was able to blame their own terrorist plots on the Muslim community and make it appear that Muslims were disloyal and violent.
The exoneration of Malcolm X’s falsely accused killers underscores just how long the FBI has operated without transparency and effective oversight to impede justice and destroy lives. Forcing innocent men to serve decades in prison by withholding exculpatory evidence that would have set them free has never been acceptable.
Now is the time for a thorough re-assessment of the FBI’s legacy from COINTELPRO to the war on terror. One step towards accountability would be through the passage of Rush’s bill, the COINTELPRO Full Disclosure Act, which would compel the FBI and other government agencies to release all records related to the COINTELPRO operation.
Finally, it is time to install independent oversight such as a conviction review unit in the Department of Justice to ensure that the FBI protects all US residents and citizens equally, and does not scapegoat those who are least able to defend themselves.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.