Yassin M. Aref is a resident of Albany New York, who was captured by Federal authorities in August, 2004, convicted in October, 2006 and sentenced to 15 years in March, 2007 as part of a counter-terrorism sting operation. While the FBI defends this prosecution, many believe it was a wrongful conviction engendered by post-9/11 fear. Aref has written a memoir, Son of Mountains, which is being published March 2, 2008.
Background of Sting Operation
The Albany Times Union reports that US forces found Aref's name, address and phone number in a notebook found in a bombed out Iraqi encampment. This information was classified, and the defense, despite defense counsel having received security clearances, was provided with almost no information about this alleged notebook. Originally the government claimed that the notebook entry said “commander” next to Aref’s name - however, when a judge told the government to provide the notebook page, the government admitted that there was a “mistranslation”and the word in question was “kak” which means “brother” not “commander,” and is a common term of respect in Kurdish. Aref is from that region, Iraqi Kurdistan and his grandfather was a famous imam - Aref was already known and respected in the area. Additionally, there is no way to know what group was bombed by US forces at the encampment – at times, groups such as the Kurdistan Islamic Group, run by Ali Bapir, were bombed by the US, even though they did not oppose US forces. While the discovery of the notebook may have launched the sting operation, its classified nature makes it impossible to know what, if any, significance it had.
The FBI claims that Aref is tied to Mullah Krekar, the founder of Ansar al-Islam. When Aref married and left Iraq as a refugee in 1994, he lived in Syria for 5 years. During that time he was approved by the UN as a refugee to be sent to a third country, which ended up being the US. While in Syria, Aref worked as a gardener for a rich businessman. When he lost that job in 1998 he was eventually hired by the Damascus Office of the IMK (Islamic Movement in Kurdistan) an Islamic Kurdish group which had worked with the US to oppose Saddam Hussein, and which helped Kurdish refugees in Syria. IMK was never claimed to be a terrorist organization. Mullah Krekar was an IMK official who, in the end of 2001, two years after Aref had left Syria and the IMK job, split from IMK to form Ansar al Islam, which is a designated terrorist organization. While Aref had met briefly Krekar, who lived in Norway, a couple of times in Damascus through his IMK job, he did not really know him, and was opposed to his extremist politics.
Aref came to the US as a United Nations refugee in 1999 with his wife and three young children. He initially found work as a janitor at a local hospital and as an ambulance driver. After a year or so he was hired as the imam of the Masjid As Salam Mosque.
Based perhaps on the discovery of the notebook in Iraq in 2003, the FBI decided at that time to launch a sting operation targeting Aref. FBI agents convinced a Pakistani informant (who was facing a long prison sentence and deportation for fraud) to approach a friend of Aref's, Mohammed Mosharref Hossain, as a means of getting to Aref.
The FBI plan was that the informant, Shahed Hussein, known as Malik, would offer to loan $50,000 cash to Hossain, and get back $45,000 in checks from Hossain’s business (a pizza shop), telling him that the money was made from buying a Surface to Air Missile from China, which was to be provided to a group called JEM (Jaish-e-Mohammed) which supposedly was to use it to attack the Pakistani Ambassador in New York City. However, none of that was true, and Malik didn’t explain it all to Hossain, who believed for example that JEM was a musical group.
Needing a witness to the loan, as is obligatory for Muslims, the men then brought Aref into the arrangement, solely as a witness to the loan transactions. The government eventually arrested both men, claiming that Aref chose to support money laundering by witnessing the loan. The defense argued that Aref, who spoke very poor English at the time, did not understand that this was anything other than a legitimate loan. Defense attorneys and many community supporters claim that both Aref and Hossain were unfairly convicted – that Hossain was entrapped and that Aref did not realize any laws were being broken.
Interestingly, Pakistan protested that building the sting around a fictional plot to assassinate the Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations put his life at risk.
The trial occurred in September-October, 2006. Hossain was convicted of all the counts, and Aref was acquitted of 20 of the 30 counts. Both men have filed appeals. The Aref defense attorneys are arguing on appeal that there was insufficient evidence, and that this was shown by the fact that Aref was acquitted of all the counts based on the most significant of the recorded conversations with the informant - the two conversations underlying the counts on which he was convicted provided him with no new information.
On March 8, 2007, both Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain were sentenced to 15 years in prison – this was half of the sentence called for under the federal sentencing guidelines. Aref’s defense counsel filed a lengthy sentencing memorandum which described Aref’s background and the support shown for him in the community. Aref professed innocence before his sentencing and criticized the government's treatment of Muslims.
The Times Union and the Daily Gazette, Albany’s two main daily newspapers, both ran editorials at the time of the sentencing asking for extreme leniency, the Times Union on March 8 and 9 and the Gazette on March 9.
In addition, Times Union columnist Fred LeBrun, who had followed the trial closely, wrote, prior to the sentencing, “Someday we'll look back on the present national paranoia over terrorism and the excesses done in its name with the same national embarrassment that Americans feel for Sen. Joe McCarthy's communist witch hunts of the 1950s and our appalling treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Someday. But not anytime soon, and certainly not before Yassin M. Aref, the former imam at an Albany mosque, and Mohammed M. Hossain, a pizza shop owner, are sentenced… Looking up from a warm seat somewhere, Senator Joe must be viewing all this with a knowing smile.”
Carl Strock, the columnist for the Gazette, who had also followed the trial very closely, and who visited Aref in jail, wrote many columns attacking the entire process as extremely unfair . Carl Strock also wrote a column in March, 2007 about a group of inmates in Rensselaer County Jail who had written letters in support of Aref and Hossain.
The FBI responded to all of this by contacting the Editorial Boards of both the Times Union and the Gazette and running an op-ed piece in the Gazette upholding the sting operation as legitimate.
Muslim Solidarity Committee
After the convictions the Muslim Solidarity Committee (MSC) was formed to support Aref, Hossain and their families. The MSC generated over 50 letters to the judge in support of leniency and nearly 1000 signature on a petition to the court, and also held vigils twice a week between the conviction and the sentencing. The MSC also organized a Family Fund which raised over $30,000 to support the two families. MSC founders Cathy Callan and Iraqi native May Saffar won an award from the NYCLU in November, 2007 for their work with the MSC. In addition, Dr. Shamshad Ahmad, President of the Masjid As-Salaam Mosque where Aref was imam, and a Physics Professor at the State University of New York at Albany, won an award from Citizen Action of New York), also in November, 2007, for his work with the MSC and in support of the Aref family. Volunteer attorney Stephen Downs wrote an article about the case, “From Sting to Frame-Up: the Case of Yassin Aref” which was published in the September/October issue of Washington Report of Middle East Affairs.
Shortly before sentencing Aref wrote a letter to the MSC thanking the group for what it had done.
Communications Management Unit at Terre Haute Federal Prison
After sentencing, Aref was taken to the Communications Management Unit (CMU) at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. The CMU was opened in December, 2006 and is almost entirely composed of Muslims, including Dr. Rafil Dafir, a US citizen from Iraq who was convicted of violating the pre-2003 sanctions against Iraq by sending charitable contributions to a group called Help the Needy. The CMU inmates’ communications with the outside world are severely restricted – they cannot even have contact visits with their own young children, but can only see them through glass and speak to them through a telephone. There are many complaints alleging arbitrary and discriminatory practices at the CMU, as well as spoiled food and lack of medical treatment. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) plans to investigate the facility. In October, 2007 Yassin Aref wrote an account of the conditions at the CMU which was published on AlbanyWeblog and other websites.
Aref’s appeal is currently pending, along with that of Mohammed Hossain, before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City. Oral argument on the appeal is expected in late March, 2008, and a decision will be handed down sometime after that, most likely in the winter or spring.
As reported on Page 1 of the New York Times on 8/26/07, the Aref appeal may be an important test case for the NSA warrantless wiretapping program, as it appears to be the only criminal case where there is strong evidence that the program was used to target a defendant.
In December 2005, the New York Times revealed that President Bush had taken the controversial step of secretly authorizing the NSA to expand its surveillance to within the United States. Then a month later there was another NYT article which quoted government officials as saying that the NSA program led them to Yassin Aref. After that article, on January 20, 2006 Aref’s lawyers filed a motion challenging the case against Aref as tainted by the illegality of the NSA program – the motion stated, “The government engaged in illegal electronic surveillance of thousands of US persons, including Yassin Aref, then instigated a sting operation to attempt to entrap Mr. Aref into supporting a non-existent terrorist plot, then dared to claim that the illegal NSA operation was justified because it was the only way to catch Mr. Aref!”
On March 10, 2006, the government filed a “response” to the defense motion which was completely classified, something defense attorneys and the NYLCU said was virtually unheard of and a violation of the 6th Amendment right to confront evidence. Approximately two hours later Judge McAvoy denied the defense motion in a “Classified Order,” something even more unheard of.
Then on March 22, 2006 the defense filed an petition for mandamus with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, challenging Judge McAvoy’s decision and arguing that the process had violated Aref’s constitutional rights – the NYCLU also filed a brief supporting the right of public access to court decisions. On June 23, 2006, the Second Circuit denied the petition, stating that Mr. Aref would have to go to trial before he could raise these constitutional issues.
On April 20, 2007 the Aref/Hossain case was featured on the PBS Documentary “Security Versus Liberty: The Other War,” which contained interviews with defense attorneys, Mosque President and MSC member Dr. Shamshad Ahmad, and representatives from the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office.
Aref’s Memoir Son of Mountains
While he was in Rensselaer County Jail awaiting sentencing, Yassin Aref wrote the story of his life. Stephen Downs helped him put the story into standard English, and editor Jeanne Finley did further editing. The book will be published in December, 2007. According to the editors, Son of Mountains is the non-fiction story of the life of Yassin Aref, an Iraqi Kurd who grew up under the rule of Saddam Hussein and later risked his life opposing him. In this compelling, very human, and utterly unique memoir, Yassin Aref traverses the devastating landscape of his childhood in Iraqi Kurdistan under Saddam; details the wrenching decision to leave Kurdistan for Syria, where he and his wife and children, although poor, make a new life, and then as UN refugees come to the United States; describes his brief residence in America as an immigrant and imam at a small mosque before his stunning arrest, prosecution, and conviction in the “terror case”; and records his extraordinary experiences over eighteen months at the Rensselaer County Jail in Troy, New York.”