New York Law School

Perspectives: Shifa, from Prayers to Plexiglass

By S. Sadequee

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My family’s connection with my brother dates back to the time when my parents, grandmother, two siblings and I were stationed among the masses of people dressed in two-piece seamless white linen. We were meditating in the Arabian desert of Arafat under the scorching heat at the holy pilgrimage in 1985. We joined thousands of pilgrims sweltering in the blazing sand under white tents thirsty for cool breeze but all raised their hands up in prayers. My parents wanted a child, and they prayed that day for a son.  Melting in supplication with the worshippers, we implored God to bestow upon us a little brother. We were all ecstatic when my little brother was born in Northern Virginia in 1986.

He became the jewel of our family because he was the manifestation of our prayers, my mother’s prayers, grandmother’s prayers, delivered to my family, humbling my parents to their relationship as human beings to the sacred universe.

Shifa’s wellbeing behind bars is always confining our minds, especially my parents as they are unable to be there for him. This is a punishment for us that began with his illegal kidnapping and incarceration. The horrid Bureau of Prison in Atlanta made us visit him through a video monitor and headphones when he was in solitary confinement for over three years before his trial had even begun. When we were allowed contact visits once or twice a year for holidays after many requests, the prison forced us to see him in orange jump-suit shackled with chains in his feet and hands. The iron manacles did not allow him to open a soda can or eat anything we bought him from the vending machine.

shifa sanfran

As a teenager Shifa was an avid reader delving into books of poetry, religion and spirituality, and history.  He attended a Muslim high school in Canada, taking classes in religious and classical Arabic studies. Soon after, in 2001, he returned to Bangladesh to live with my parents and finish high school. He fell ill from environmental pollution in Dhaka so my parents decided to keep him at home where they home-schooled him. When he returned to the US in 2004, Shifa was active in social justice activism and the anti-war movement. He worked with our sister Sonali in a women’s rights organization to end violence against women and children. Community members in Atlanta also knew him for his gentleness and warmth.  He volunteered in conferences about ending violence and sexism sponsored by Atlanta men’s organization.  My brother also volunteered with organizations like WAND—a national organization whose mission is to empower women to act politically, reduce militarism and violence and redirect excessive military spending towards unmet human and environmental needs.

A year before Shifa was arrested, law-enforcement agents harassed my immediate and extended families and friends in US, Canada and Bangladesh. In late December 2005, ICE agents marched into our Roswell home in Georgia, flaunting their guns at my mother and sister-in-law to find out whether we had any guns or weapons in our home.  The women became confused and terrified unable to understand their reasons for such behavior and questions. My mother held a legally obtained permanent residency in the US at the time.  But, the agents arrested my mother that day for violating some immigration regulations and placed her in removal proceedings.  Not knowing what would happen with her deportation case, we were living with uncertainty and feared she might be deported and not allowed to see her son again.  The government later withdrew her deportation case in 2011, two years after my brother’s trial ended.

However, the most shocking and numbing moment for my family was when my brother went missing.  Shifa went to Bangladesh in the summer of 2005 to get married.  On his way at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City, FBI agents interrogated him but let go.  In April 17, 2006, he was kidnapped and went missing for days.  We later learned that the FBI picked him up and brought him to Brooklyn, NY, aboard a “secret” CIA rendition aircraft through Alaska. He was stripped off his clothes and wrapped in a plastic-like material on the flight.

At a press conference in Bangladesh, my father requested the help of journalists and the public in finding his son. The Bangladesh government at the time kept silent. In New York, Shifa was charged with making a “false statement” to the FBI but the case was later dropped. In August 2006 the US government transferred Shifa to Atlanta on “terrorism” related charges. No government agencies communicated about his arrest to my father and his wife in Bangladesh or to my family in Atlanta. The case stemmed from “evidence” from 2004 and 2005 when Shifa was 18 and 19.  Shifa was not permitted to see the evidence against him until a few months of before his trial. The “secret” evidence against Shifa included online chats between teenagers and religious literature that he had translated from ancient Arabic texts to English for Tibyan Publication.

While Shifa was awaiting trial, he was staying in a solitary confinement cell that was approximately 8 feet by 12 feet for over three years. He was in that cell for at least 23 hours per day. Many days he remained in the cell for 24 hours. He could not have normal pens or pencils. He could not make phone calls to his family, except on rare occasions. He had never been charged with even a minor offence, yet he had served three years in the most onerous prison conditions that this country had to offer. During this time, an inmate assaulted and attacked him, which left my brother traumatized and his health markedly deteriorated.

The official charges against Shifa included “supporting” a foreign terrorist organization (Laskar-e-taiba, LET) in Pakistan by sharing videos of tourist sites in Washington, DC with his online friends. However, LET was not listed and designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the US State Department at the time Shifa was apprehended but added to the list two weeks after his arrest.  There were no acts of “terrorism” charges against Shifa. There were no “plotting” of terrorist activities charges against him.

Shifa is one of the first young Muslim men to represent himself at his own trial in the federal court.  He addressed the court throughout his four year legal proceeding and challenged the court directly.  The prosecution took advantage of Shifa’s lack of knowledge of the law, and submitted evidence that had no connection to him at all. The majority of government witnesses were FBI agents who did not participate in the online chats between teenagers but were allowed to present and “interpret” evidence. No actual participants from the chats were brought to testify.  Jurors prejudicial towards Islam and Muslims were chosen for the trial with some jurors, according to media reports as well, caught sleeping as evidence was being presented.

Shifa was sentenced to 17 years. The results of the devastating and oppressive events that this violent legal ordeal communicates to us are that the court presiding over my brother’s case had its own imagination of what is a Muslim and who belongs to the Muslim faith. In sentencing him, the court pronounced itself an “expert” of Muslim religion. It had its own definition of “Muslim” and felt the need to judge religious expression and practice of my brother and declare and differentiate between “true” and “good” Muslim from a “bad” Muslim.

I remember when we first went to visit my brother in the Communication Management Unit-CMU in Marion, IL.  Driving to this prison make us feel as if we are approaching a serene and colorful quaint terrain. We pass by still lakes, watching people fishing quietly in the water. Wild birds with open wings are soaring in the velvet blue sky. We are in the middle of a resting area for migratory birds and a home for hundreds of plants and animals. It makes me feel that this prison must be more beautiful and humane than the horrendous ones in other places. Passing through the abandoned checkpoint and crossing over the intersection of Justice and Prison Road, the massive ghoulish compound emerges with its two huge towers, looming over the calm green space. The thorny prison fences threaten the wandering birds. Visitors are instantly under the microscope of guards from the shadowy towers, in addition to surveillance cameras all over the facility. Upon viewing the scenic landscape, one wouldn’t know that industrial and manufacturing activities take place on the refuge near the prison. During WW II, our government used this national safe haven to make explosives and even today still produces “military ordinance production.” The ominous walls of Marion CMU hide in the middle of a national wild life sanctuary in Southern Illinois.

This prison is like a portal to some unknown land. We have to follow the ritual of security check and cross many iron borders before we can see my brother. Showing our identification cards, filling out forms, taking off our shoes and jackets, and walking through the metal detectors are routine procedures that we have to endure. We always worry whether our bodies will set off an alarm. We are always thrilled when we pass the security test but inhibit our emotions, because visitation regulations can change arbitrarily and without prior notice. We have to restrain our emotions and behave politely. It’s like an exercise in humility but it’s forced on us, constraining us from being our real selves. Then they brand our wrists with an invisible ink and we are processed by a blue laser beam. It makes us feel as if we have been turned into cattle–we have somehow become the property of the prison, a prisoner.

A supervisor always escorts us, like the guards escort inmates, when we enter the passage with the white hall lined with panel windows as guards watch our every move. Going through one steel door after another, we approach an interior that gets darker and darker when we arrive at the general population room where convicted murderers, drug dealers, and other offenders are allowed to visit their families with physical contact.  A booth where guards watch us on television screens is stationed here in this room, but we don’t visit my brother here. We have to cross another heavy door. Our visit and conversations with my brother occur over phones, while prison officials watch us on a video and document our speech and behavior. Federal agents simultaneously monitor us and eavesdrop on our conversations remotely from Washington, DC.

We enter the visitation room through the steel gate where the pernicious glass-wall separates us from my brother. As we walk into the room, the guard in blue uniform closes the menacing iron door and locks us in. This room is eerie, dingy, and small. There are no windows or doors to see or go outside. There are no bathrooms here. There are no vending machines to buy water or soda. However, two cameras always watch us— study our bodies and movements. It feels like the dark walls are closing in, and there is no way out.  Shifa always waits on the other side of the Plexiglas. He welcomes us—me, my mother, and my sister who flew in from Atlanta—with the biggest smile stretched across his cheeks and the longest Muslim greeting in Arabic. His smiles chase the darkness away. His hair is falling down to his ears and a full bushy beard covering his face. He is in khaki uniform, wearing a white skull cap and glasses. My brother brightens up the morose room with his poised grin and graceful warmth. We are very thrilled to see him, but especially my mother. She is filled with joy to see her son and very anxious to talk to him, to hear his voice. She takes her seat between my sister and me, picks up the new white phone placed between three broken, useless black wall phones.

The CMU prison guards watch and document every move, word, and action of my brother and all inmates around the clock. Unlike other prisons where the Warden is in charge of daily operations, CMUs are under the Director of Federal Bureau of Prison in Washington, DC. They are “secret” prisons in our beautiful mid-western prairies of Indiana and Illinois, established during the second term of George W.  Bush. They are “self-contained general population” units used to punish, monitor inmates, and restrict their spiritual and religious life twenty four hours a day.  My brother’s emails, phone calls, personal letters, and family visitations are all monitored. His interaction and all communications of other inmates with the outside world are limited and restricted. Family members cannot embrace their loved ones inside these prisons. These units have been cleverly labeled by the government as “general population” however, inmates in these sections do not actually have the same privileges as those inmates in the regular general population. Supposedly a see-through wall barring family members from hugging each other can help protect American citizens and national security. It is very puzzling to me how banning my mother and other families of prisoners from natural human contact and fulfilling the need for familial closeness and physical human connection with our loved-ones can protect our nation. Unless of course, the intention isn’t to protect national security but use that language to fashion something else.

The government is not only punishing my brother and our family; they are also punishing all citizens and extracting money from the public. A 2010 Congressional Report on CMUs indicated that our government spent some $14 million in tax dollars of American citizens to ensure that these few inmates in CMUs and their families are punished and do not have familial communication or physical contact with their loved ones. How is it possible that so many Americans revolted at the news of Guantanamo Bay but continue to sponsor and pay for these CMU internment camps known as the “Guantanamo North” that constitutes the American prison-industrial complex? The level of security and inhumane restrictions on the interactions at these prisons seem absurd considering how the Muslim prisoners in these units committed no acts of violence. I wonder whether the only purpose for housing peaceful Muslims in CMUs is to create an image to make the world believe that “terrorists” exist, when these few men have not committed such acts as proven by courts. Why are so many tax dollars spent to make sure Muslim women and children suffer and can never hug their loved-ones, kiss their forehead, when many Americans are suffering from hunger and homelessness every day.

See Letter from Congress on CMUs

To get involved, see No Separate Justice

Access to the Courts, Human Rights and Democracy | Comment

Law@theMargins: Cultivating the Democratic Scholar and Advancing Democratic Scholarship

By Chaumtoli Huq


Creating Law@theMargins was deliberate and intentional to create a platform from which to collectivize the development and promotion of ideas on social justice and put into practice the idea of democratic scholarship, which I hope to be the theoretical foundation to this project.  It was ambitiously intended to create a platform to challenge how ideas are formed, created, and promoted.  There, I write and curate pieces from guest writers engaged in social justice work, and not exclusively by lawyers.  Further, it seeks to put into practice deeply felt beliefs on praxis, scholarship, activism, theory and practice, and the numerous other ways these principles fail to get to the root of knowledge production that seeks to privilege certain perspectives, voices over others, while at the same time not lapsing to some identity-based concept of the activist/radical scholar or tokenizing of community.  Social media and technology allows me to include perspectives from all over the globe onto one platform.  The accessibility of social media allows for an expansive thinking on scholarship.  I welcome the opportunity to revisit our ideas of scholars and scholarship.

Through Law@theMargins, I would like to open a conversation on who is a scholar and what does democratic scholarship look like.  How is scholarship conceived, produced, published?  How is it validated or valued?  Through this open-sourced process, I hope to develop refine my own thinking on scholarship within a collective, open process, which I lay out here more for comment.

I have often heard we are now living in an Idea Economy, and so the person with the boldest, innovative idea, will succeed, compete.  Ideas, thoughts then become a commodity to transact to distinguish one-self from others.  As we begin to value experiential knowledge, and bring community-based perspectives into academy, new words emerge to distinguish the “traditional scholar” – e.g. thought leader.  Even in the social justice context, foundations promote certain individuals within movements as the “thinkers” within the movement.  It seems no matter how much we democratize spaces, even social justice movement spaces, our concepts of an individual that is the prime conduit of ideas still stubbornly remain.  This is because we may have included marginalized voices into our work, but we have not changed the way in which we think about how ideas are produced. Knowledge production remains in the exclusive domain of elite intellectuals.  It is conceived, just by the referencing of an idea economy, as part of capitalism.  Until we imagine ideas, scholarship, even that intended to help marginalized communities, within a capitalist, transactional framework, we will still be debating theory and practice.   We need a massive revolution on how we think about ideas, and not inflate this idea economy.

To help this collective conversation, I lay out some working definitions to provoke questions, reactions, and thoughts.

Democratic Scholarship & Democratic Scholars

Democratic scholarship employs methodologies that actively engages and invites the participation of people and community impacted by scholarship, and gives them a voice in the direction, production of such ideas contained within the scholarship, and where appropriate to provide shared ownership/attribution of the contributions in the promotion of ideas.

Democratic scholars are not located solely in academic institutions, but can be anyone who is seriously reflecting and thinking on ideas of justice.  Scholars understand that by virtue of their access to formal education they are able to write on ideas that marginalized communities or activists doing on the groundwork cannot; yet, the ideas generated in their work may define the communities and their issues.  As such, it can limit the potential for communities to define for themselves their issues and ideas.  The democratic scholar is mindful of this and is committed to ensuring that the voices and perspectives of marginalized communities are heard and their contributions are visible in the production of ideas.  They actively work to remove obstacles for community members to engage in scholarship production in a meaningful way.   They also must acknowledge that knowledge production is not an individualized process outside of any socio-historical context.

Democratic scholars must be interested in disrupting individualized notions of scholarship and ideas, and work towards collectivizing the process of knowledge production and promotion.  In this regard, democratic scholarship must be anti-imperial and anti-colonialist in that the scholar does not “extract” the raw materials of ideas from community and promote them as their own.

Who is an activist, who is the “community” and who is the scholar are contested identities that need to be re-imagined.  This does not negate their own contributions, but simply acknowledges the pivotal role that marginalized communities play in the development of ideas.

Gramsci’s concept of the organic scholar seems most aligned to what I am thinking; however, his concept still is focused on the individual and the scholar’s relationship to community.  Here, the democratic scholar is engaged in a more dynamic, interactive, interdependent process and her relationship to community reflects this fuller engagement.   Nonetheless, Gramsci’s “organic scholar” at least stands in contrast to self-appointed “thought leaders” and “public intellectuals” which often reinforces a way of knowledge production that remains the domain of formally and highly educated.

Many Participatory Action Research (PAR) based scholarship is democratic scholarship in that it actively engages community impacted in the production of the scholarship.  PAR is used now in many social justice settings.  This development in my mind is the most promising in social justice work.  This research is often taking place outside of the formalized academy.

In my definition, I draw from a seminal and influential piece by Professors Margaret Montoya and Francisco Valdes, called: Latina/os” and the Politics of Knowledge Production.  My formulation owes much to the pioneering work in legal academy by critical legal theorists.  In their must read piece, they lay out different types of scholarship including urging scholars to engage in a more democratic process of knowledge production.  In response to my formulation of democratic scholarship, Professor Montoya writes the following points to me, poetically and forcefully:

  • This idea of democratic scholarship is opposed to forms of discourse that have been called “imperial” (by Richard Delgado and others) and characterized by an elitism and/or exceptionalism paradigm, we position ourselves against scholars who work in closed circles primarily in a handful of high profile institutions.
  • With our definition, we were striving to embrace Outsider scholarship that was/is experimental, creative, boundary crossing or boundary-ignoring, inchoate, and questioning.
  • We were intentionally eschewing norms or standards that stultify or thwart the consideration of power and powerlessness and how they are sustained and re-inscribed.
  • We hope to develop/ we try to be intentional about developing scholarship consistent with a social justice ethic such that the work does no harm as a first goal, but beyond that seeks to advance an analysis and praxis toward greater justice, equity, fairness, liberty.

Professor Montoya’s remarks perhaps captures best  the idea of democratic scholarship and the responsibility of a democratic scholar, and provides a historical context, and antecedent to where I am hoping we can collectively build on.

So, how would you define the democratic scholar?  What are her responsibilities to the community?  How is/can she be held accountable? Is it possible to create scholarship that in its production does not reinforce the same inequities that it seeks to challenge? How do we remain vigilant that our work “does no harm” and move towards justice.






Uncategorized | Comment

Perspectives: No Access to Justice When Employers Use Police Force to Control Farmworkers

Head Shot Lor

By  Lori Johnson, an attorney with the Farmworker Unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina

As a farmworker attorney in North Carolina, simply meeting with my clients poses an ongoing challenge.  This reality became clear to me several years ago while meeting with a client outside his home. A squad car pulled into the yard, and fear washed over my client’s face. My client’s employer sought trespass charges against me, even though my client, the actual resident, had invited me. My client had no telephone or means of transportation, so meeting him after work hours where he lived was necessary.

The deputies let me argue my case to a magistrate over the squad car telephone, and she deferred my arrest pending an opinion from the North Carolina Attorney General on whether trespass charges would stand against an attorney present at a labor camp at the invitation of the occupant farmworker. While the resulting opinion was favorable, threatened and actual police force continue to be used against migrant service providers in North Carolina and throughout the nation.

Private property with dog[1]

<Read More>

Access to the Courts, Human Rights and Democracy, Labor and Immigration, Uncategorized | Comment

Perspectives: Housing is a Human Right

Rob Robinson Picture

By Rob Robinson, Take Back the Land Leadership Committee

The movement should be led by impacted communities, primarily women of color.  This core principle of Take Back the Land (TBTL) stands front and center on this December 10th, 2013, a day that is recognized around the world as Human Rights Day.  TBTL is a network of grassroots organizations from around the country which uses non-violent civil disobedience and direct action to defend families against eviction, move people into vacant homes and reclaims vacant property for farming and other uses based on community need. <Read More>

Human Rights and Democracy, Law and Social Movements | Comments Off

Mobilizing for Tea Garden Workers in South Asia

418311_10151366570275392_1230443726_nBy Chaumtoli Huq

While tea is not the largest export for Bangladesh, the plight of tea garden workers are similar to that described by Nazdeek in Francesca’s Feruglio’s piece, Perspectives: Mobilizing for Justice in the Tea Gardens in Assam – Law at the Margins <Read More>

Involve | Comment

Perspectives: Mobilizing for Justice in the Tea Gardens in Assam

Francesca Feruglio Nazdeek

By Francesca Feruglio

Background on Assam’s Tea Gardens and Nazdeek

The State of Assam, in North-East India, is home to more than half of India’s tea production and one sixth of the world’s production. However, thousands of tea garden workers living and working on the gardens have yet to benefit from such large-scale profit. Over 150 years ago Adivasi (indigenous) communities, were forcibly brought to Assam from India’s Central States to work as labourers in the gardens. Today, their living and working conditions remain shockingly poor, with the gardens lacking adequate essential services, such as hospitals, schools and food ration shops, and tea garden workers paid the lowest wage in India’s organized sector ($1.50/day). <Read More>

Human Rights and Democracy, Labor and Immigration, Uncategorized | Comment (1)

Perspectives: “Children’s Place” as Orphans in Rana Plaza Tragedy

Child Waits for Mother Shomokal

Photo by Mahbub Hossain Nobin in Bengali Newspaper Samakal (May 13 2013)

By Shahinur Begum, Researcher, Sramabikesh Kendra of UBINIG (Center for Labor Education) 


Women wage earners are the cheapest in Bangladesh due to the socio-economic condition of the country, which is why so many girls are employed in the garment industry.  About 3.2 million workers are engaged in these factories and 95% of them are women.  Now there are about 5,000 garment factories since its inception in late 1970s.  Women are the vibrant work force of these factories. Hundreds of workers have to give their lives due to neglect of the owners of the garment factories every year.  The families of the victims have been passing their time with extreme hardship due to the death of the earning members.  The situation of the children of victims is dire. Soft touch of mother’s hand is the eternal gift for a baby.  That lovely mother is gone and gone forever.  The situation of orphans is very heavy to bear and hard to hold back tears.  It is understandable that there are lots of activities involving the victims just after any accident in a garment factory but there is little space to think about the children of the victims.  The present report is prepared to look at the working conditions of women workers and the impact of the Rana Plaza building collapse on their children. <Read More>

Labor and Immigration, Uncategorized | Comment

Campaign for Children Impacted by Rana Plaza Tragedy


United Students Against Sweatshops and International Labor Rights Forum  have an ongoing campaign to seek compensation for the children of Rana Plaza.  For more information, see:

The Orphan’s Place (  The Children’s Place produced apparel at Rana Plaza before the factory collapsed in a horrific industrial homicide, killing 1,132 garment workers and leaving children without a parent, grandparent, brother, or sister.

Involve | Comment

Perspectives: Democracy, we have a problem: Religion


Lailufar Yasmin is an Associate Professor with Department of International Relations, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and currently undertaking research on ‘secularism in International Relations’ at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

Immanuel Kant, a principle theorist on secularism proposed that human beings should assume responsibility for their acts in the public sphere instead of taking refuge to some divine explanation for such acts. Referring to the principles of secularism, Kant suggested that the goal of Enlightenment was simply a release from the “self-incurred tutelage” of religion rather than the eradication of religion. As part of this release, the public sphere of a modern, enlightened life would be secular i.e. free of religion so that it could engage with the problems of modern life through reason. However, this intended separation between religion and the public sphere is not practiced in its ideal form in secularism’s heartland, i.e., the West. <Read More>

Human Rights and Democracy, Uncategorized | Comment

Bioethics, Scientific Research and the GMO Debate


“Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors…in order that the creations of our minds shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind.  Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations.” – Albert Einstein’s Speech to students at California Institute of Technology on February 16, 1931

“Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.  Only when we do not have to be accountable to anybody can we find joy in scientific endeavor.” - Albert Einstein, March 24, 1951

The GMO food debate is not a debate between those who are anti-science and those who are pro-science.   It is an internal ethical debate among scientists as to science’s relationship to the public good or corporate interests.

The conversation will revolve around the courage of independent scientists who value the importance of unbiased research and who have a firm understanding of the ethics of scientific research.  In the interest of professional integrity, they must and many have demanded the need to fully and comprehensively research GMO food crops without restrictive research mandates that fail to take into account the impact of biotechnologies on our health and environment and without the threat of the “purse” from the biotech industry.

Moreover, the scientific community must not create a wedge in public policy decisions that posits food security issues as science versus anti-science.  In this regard, Albert Einstein’s quotes above are relevant here.  In one, he cautions scientists not to be financially beholden to anybody and in another he advises young scientists not to present their profession as superior to the interests of the public good.  Recently, philosophy professor Gary Gutting in his New York Times piece Science’s Humanties Gap writes: “the greater problem is scientists’ failure to attend to what’s going on in the humanities.”  As it relates to the GMO debate, this piece coupled with Einstein’s caution shows that the GMO debate is not between pro-science versus anti-science, rather a one between ethical based science or a narrow technocratic science. <Read More>

Food Security, Investigate, Law and Social Movements | Comments (2)