By S. Sadequee
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.
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