Glens Falls Post-Star, page B1, published 03/09/2007
Watching the wheel of injustice
Commentary, By Will Doolittle
With the sentencing of the two Muslim men in Albany caught in an FBI sting born of post-9/11 hysteria, an episode of injustice has reached its unjust conclusion.
Yassin Aref, an imam, and Mohammed Hossain, a pizzeria owner, were sentenced Thursday to 15 years in federal prison. Their crime was being polite to an FBI informant who babbled to them in various languages, not all of which they understood perfectly, about all kinds of things, including a cockamamie scheme to launder money from the sale of a missile.
The missile was never sold; it belonged to the FBI. The essence of the prosecution was that these two men had committed a crime by failing to report to police the convoluted stories of a guy they didn't know, stories they heard in sporadic bits over the course of a year.
And remember, these are two immigrants who weren't fluent in English, who came as adults from countries with completely different justice systems, who were busy and distracted trying to support big families in a strange country.
But these men were supposed to be able to judge when it was necessary to make a report to the police. And their lives are being destroyed because they misjudged.
They are going to prison, 15 years each. We have sent them there.
The most shame falls on the FBI agents who decided in 2003 to target two men who had done nothing wrong. Not one thing.
Essentially, they were chosen at random. They were chosen as examples.
The only justification the FBI has thrown up for targeting them is that Aref's name was found in documents dug up in Iraq, in "suspected terrorist camps."
Who knows if it was even his name? We have to take the government's word for that, and taking the government's word for things involving Iraq has been a bad idea the past few years.
But let's say someone who lived in a camp in Iraq wrote Mr. Aref's name on a letter or in a diary. Does that justify the FBI training a convicted criminal to entrap two men who were doing nothing wrong? Under the deal this federally cultivated criminal got, he walked free.
I don't know why the FBI was so eager to get a small-time religious leader and a pizza shop owner off the streets. Maybe one of the agents bought a slice of pepperoni he didn't like from Mr. Hossain.
I do know it's chilling to see how easily the government can pluck two men out of their everyday lives and toss them into a nightmare of twisted criminal justice.
And it's frightening how all the rest of us, bewildered and intimidated, stood aside.
Will Doolittle is features editor of The Post-Star. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.