William Fisher Interviews Dr. Jeanne Theoharis    IPS 4/15/10

For the past almost three years, a U.S. citizen, Syed Fahad Hashmi, has been held in isolation in a federal detention centre in New York City.

He is suspected of conspiring to provide “material support” to

al Qaeda. The government’s evidence is a suitcase full of raingear l

eft by a visitor to his London apartment. The government charges t

hat the raingear was for delivery to al Qaeda operatives, and that

Hashmi let his visitor use his cellphone.

Hashmi is under 24-hour video and audio surveillance, even when he

uses the toilet. He eats all his meals in his small cell. He is not allowed

to communicate with other prisoners. He is a Muslim but is not allowed

to participate in group prayer.

The month-old newspapers he receives have whole sections cut out of

them by the government. Contact with the media is forbidden. For one

hour every other week, one member of his family can “visit” through a

heavy screen. No touching or hugging is allowed or possible.

Sometimes the government takes away his family visits as punishment.

In 2008, he lost his visits for three months and has not had family visits

since December. Sometimes the government does not allow his family

to see him when they arrive at the prison because the FBI translator is

not there.

Hashmi’s trial is finally scheduled for Apr. 28, and the government’s star

witness against him is the man who left the raingear in Hashmi’s London

apartment, and who has already been sentenced to a long prison term

but is using his testimony to reduce his sentence.

IPS correspondent William Fisher discussed the case with Dr. Jeanne

Theoharis, the Brooklyn College professor who was Hashmi’s teacher in 2002,

and is one of those most outraged by Hashmi’s treatment.

Q: How do you remember Hashmi as one of your students?

A: He was a student of mine in 2002. He took the senior capstone seminar

in political science with me. That year, the course I taught was on post-civil rights

racial politics, which focused on civil rights from the 1960s to the present.

He loved to talk and debate other students – and seemed to have a rather

optimistic view of the power of debate to change people’s minds.

It is a small course where students are required to do a research paper.

He did his on the treatment of Muslim groups in the United States post-9/11

and – ironically or perhaps not – described the violations of civil liberties that

Muslim groups of various political positions were facing. Now that paper

he did with me is being lived out in lower Manhattan, and it is his rights

that have been violated.

Q: The next time you saw him (after graduation) he was in custody

and there was a court hearing. How did he seem to you?

A: Over the course of the past two years seeing him at these court hearings,

his mental health appears to have declined. He now appears considerably

less focused and more jittery. He used to pay attention to everything happening

in court, constantly talking to his lawyer and for the brief moments entering

and leaving court, making eye contact and smiling at people in the audience.

He now seems much more withdrawn, sometimes just keeping his head down

the whole time. This certainly corresponds to the research on the effects of

prolonged solitary confinement, which documents this kind of degradation

of people’s mental health.

Q: Did his lawyer put up a robust defense against the imposition

of the special administrative measures (SAMs)?

A: Yes, his defense has challenged the SAMs on multiple occasions, including

introducing medical and scholarly evidence of the damage that prolonged solitary confinement has on a person.

The judge was unconcerned and ruled against every defense motion

seeking to address the SAMs. She has refused even to make modest

changes. She has determined the SAMs to be “administrative and not

punitive” and thus constitutional. Judges – and particularly this judge,

Loretta Preska – seem to be allowing the government wide latitude in

imposing these inhumane measures.

These SAMs are legalized torture. The levels of isolation and sensory

deprivation are dehumanizing. They go against international standards

and have been shown in medical and scholarly research to have a severe

impact on a person’s mental health and stability. And they severely impact

the ability of a person to participate effectively in his or her own defense.

Q: Do you think Hashmi will get a fair trial?

A: No, his right to a fair trial has already been severely compromised by the

SAMs, and also by the use of “classified” evidence legalized through the

Classified Information Procedures Act. As a U.S. citizen, Hashmi has not

been allowed to review all the evidence against him. We are hoping to salvage

justice in his case. But three years of solitary confinement and severe isolation

have made a fair trial impossible.

We have begun to have a public conversation in this country about torture but

not addressed this crucial aspect of it happening right here in the federal

system, and, in Hashmi’s case, right here in New York City. While there has

been public attention to the use of torture for intelligence gathering, we have

missed the use of torture to gain convictions – as a way for the government’s

lawyers to demonstrate the success of U.S. law enforcement and federal

prosecution in the “war on terror”.