Sentence casts shame on U.S.

Steve Jacobs Columbia Daily Tribune

When I heard the judge sentence my friend Shakir Hamoodi to three years in prison, I remembered our first introduction and his advice before I embarked on a human rights delegation in 1997 to Iraq to document the desperate conditions caused by U.S.-imposed economic sanctions. “When you see how the people are suffering under sanctions,” he said, “ask how this will make us safe from Saddam Hussein.” An Iraqi Catholic bishop in Basra told me, “The poor and the weak cannot be made to pay for the mistakes of their leaders,” but our government made them pay. Dennis Halliday, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, resigned shortly after our delegation toured Iraq, calling the sanctions “genocidal.” He quit, he said, “because I didn’t want to be complicit.”

This is what wars do to innocent people. They might become casualties of unintended consequences, but their suffering is real and hard to ignore. Imagine your response to desperate sisters and brothers and your blind mother’s pleas. Shakir showed investigators a letter from a relative who thanked him for helping her buy antibiotics – but not before she lost the child she carried to an infection. I like to think I would do the same, but I come from a privileged group with much less risk than an Iraqi-American Muslim.

The irony is we did break sanctions laws when Jeff Stack and I took tens of thousands of dollars worth of medicines and school supplies to Iraq. We announced publicly our intentions to violate the laws because they punished innocent people. I planned to use the right to practice my religion and do unto others as I wish for myself. We even offered to turn ourselves in to the Treasury Department, but it refused to prosecute us. The difference is I am a Christian, and Shakir is an American Muslim. His actions to alleviate suffering were criminalized, and mine weren’t.

We hold up humanitarian aid to the poor as one of our highest virtues, so, I have to ask, where was Shakir Hamoodi’s criminal intent, who was harmed by his crime of compassion and how does this merit three years in prison instead of probation? Shakir was practically the only Muslim brave enough to venture outside the mosque after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to condemn terrorism by any religious group. He sacrificed his time to build trusting relationships with hundreds of people in Missouri. Even after FBI raids on his home, he showed investigators how he wired money directly from his bank account and with 12 other donors over nine years. He sent more than $200,000. It doesn’t seem like a lot when divided 12 ways over nine years. He said, “I did it openly and wired money to family members directly from my account. I explained to the government how I did it. I did not lie or try to hide it.” One investigator asked him why he kept records of this, and he said, “I wanted to be able to show my children how I had helped my family so they would be proud of their father.”

Jesus once said, “Laws are made to serve men; men are not made to serve the law.” It’s important to know the difference between what is legal and what is right, especially when lives are at stake. Although I’m sure he never intended to break the law, I’m confident he intended to be compassionate and merciful like every good Muslim is taught in the Quran and like any good American Christian would do when faced with the stark choices he or she was given.

To send this good man to prison for being compassionate in the face of suffering makes me ashamed of what passes for American justice.

This article was published on page D3 of the Sunday, May 27, 2012 edition of The Columbia Daily Tribune.