As the planned closing of the U.S. military's detention center at Guantanamo Bay draws nearer, human rights activists are raising serious questions about the treatment of detainees who will be transferred to the U.S. for trial.
But, while the media has focused virtually all its attention on these foreign prisoners held abroad, the government is already imprisoning in the U.S. American citizens awaiting trial on terror-related charges -- and under what their supporters describe as draconian conditions.
These people are being held under a Department of Justice rule known as Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), a rule dating from the Bill Clinton era and strengthened during the administration of George W. Bush.
SAMs are designed to keep dangerous inmates in custody from communicating with other terror suspects on the outside, and to prevent them from ordering violence or harming other inmates. The measures were expanded after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, extending the limit to one year from 120 days and permitting the monitoring of communications between the inmates and their lawyers in certain circumstances.
The DOJ and its Bureau of Prisons say six people -- four charged with terror-related crimes -- are currently being held under the SAMs rule. But one case appears to be attracting increasing attention.
This is the case of Syed Hashmi, a 29-year-old Pakistani immigrant and US citizen who grew up in Queens, New York, who has been held in solitary confinement in a federal prison in New York City for more than two years while he awaits trial on charges of providing material support to Al Qaeda.
Hashmi, a Muslim, is on a 23-hour solitary-confinement lockdown and 24 hour surveillance including when he showers and goes to the bathroom. He was not allowed family visits for months. Now, he can see one person for an hour and a half, but only every other week. He is permitted to write only one letter a week to a single member of his family, but he cannot use more than three pieces of paper per letter. Within his own cell, he is restricted in the movements he is allowed to do. He is not allowed to try to talk guards or other inmates.
Hashmi is forbidden any contact -- directly or through his attorneys -- with the news media. He can read newspapers, but only those portions approved by his jailers -- and not until 30 days after publication. And he is forbidden to listen to news radio stations or to watch television news channels.
He is also under 24-hour electronic monitoring inside and outside of his cell and is forbidden to communicate with any of the other inmates. He is allowed one hour of recreation every day (which is periodically denied)--and not given fresh air but must exercise aloneinside a solitary cage.
According to one of Hashmi's Brooklyn College professors, Jeanne Theoharis, who has attended the hearings in his case, Hashmi's "mental health appears to be deteriorating.". His attorneys are concerned that his extreme isolation "will cause lasting psychological, emotional, and physical damage" to their client.
Theoharis, an associate professor of political science at the City University of New York's Brooklyn College, was instrumental in organizing a campaign to draw attention to the civil liberties and human rights concerns of Hashmi's case that enlisted more than 550 to petition the Justice Department protesting the conditions of Hashmi's confinement and the undermining of his right to a fair trial. Among them were Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Duncan Kennedy of Harvard; Seyla Benhabib of Yale; and Eric Foner and Saskia Sassen of Columbia.
Prosecutors have said that Hashmi had a friend, Junaid Babar, who stayed at his London apartment for two weeks. Babar stored luggage containing raincoats, ponchos, and waterproof socks in the apartment. Babar later delivered them to the third-ranking member of Al Qaeda in South Waziristan, Pakistan. When, later in New York, a Grand Jury charged Hashmi with "conspiracy to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization," the socks, ponchos, and raincoats became "military gear."
The government also charges that Hashmi let Babar use his cell phone "to call other conspirators." Hashmi says he had no idea whom Babar was calling.
While a student at Brooklyn College, Hashmi was a member of the U.S. group Al-Muhajiroun. The U.S. has not designated this organization as a terrorist group.
Hashmi has denied that he was part of conspiracies to help Al Qaeda, or that he ever gave support to anybody to pass on materials to the terrorist group.
He was initially arrested in London in 2006 as he prepared to
board a flight to Pakistan and was then extradited to the U.S. He has been held in New York since the Memorial Day weekend, 2007.