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Muslim case: It really was a terror trial

The View from Here (column) by Carl Strock

Schenectady Daily Gazette, published March 14, 2007

   I could not find it in myself to be grateful the other day, leaving the James T. Foley Courthouse in downtown Albany, that Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain had been sentenced to “only” 15 years in prison rather than the 30-to-life they had faced.

   Fifteen years for what? For allowing themselves to be tricked by the FBI?

   For accepting money, in Hossain’s case, from someone who professed brotherhood with him?

   For witnessing the transaction, in Aref’s case, when witnessing was one of his duties as an imam?

   Think of what 15 years means when you have young children to support — four children in the case of Yassin, the oldest being 11, and six children in the case of Mohammed, the oldest being 13.

   Think what it means for the children themselves, who will be adults when they see their fathers again, and think what it means for the wives. They were all in court Thursday, two wives, 10 children, to see their husbands/fathers consigned to “only” 15 years in prison, as terrorists, of all insane things.

   It makes me want to throw up, which is how I felt as we milled around in the corridor after the sentences had been pronounced, trying to buck each other up, some of us.

   Maybe it was a victory in strictly procedural terms, the fruit of public support for the two men, in the form of letters, petitions, and vigils, and of forceful arguments on the part of their attorneys, but in any kind of human terms, it was an outrage, as far as I’m concerned, and I am as ashamed now as I was when the guilty verdicts were delivered last October.

   The two men were sentenced separately, first Yassin, then Mohammed, each brought into the courtroom in Rensselaer County jailhouse greens, with “RCJ INMATE” in block letters on the back, before a full house of reporters, federal functionaries, local peace-minded supporters and family members.

   Yassin, the more intellectual of the two and very much a preacher, took advantage of his opportunity to address the court to deliver an impassioned extemporaneous speech, defending his innocence — “I swear by God I never had any intention to harm anyone in this country” — and to declare prophetically, “The people in the back [his supporters] need to stand up and stop these people [the FBI agents and prosecutors] from taking this country toward hell,” at which point I very nearly applauded.

   Also to tell Judge Thomas McAvoy, “They knew I never did any violence. The government, they knew. You knew. I didn’t come to this country to harm anyone,” during all of which Judge McAvoy stared at him grimly, his face getting redder by the minute, till he finally told him, at the end, “It’s nice for you to believe you’re innocent, but the jury found you guilty,” and what’s more, “the court,” meaning him, “reviewed the verdict and decided they were correct,” which removed any doubt about where he stood.

   This was a sharp contrast with Mohammed, the more humble of the two prisoners, a modest pizza-maker and fixer-upper of run-down apartments. He tried to read from a prepared statement but choked up right from the start and could hardly get through it, his voice breaking at every turn: “When Malik [the FBI’s trickster] first came into my life, he had everything I did not. He was smart, he had export-import business, he had cars, he had more money than he could spend,” and so forth. It was sad to listen to.

   “I did not know about terrorism and shooting and bombing, but I could tell you how many pounds of flour you need for pizza.” And so on, all of this in near-tears, with his wife and children looking on.

   And then, finally, from Judge McAvoy, came the give-away, the most telling line in the proceeding, maybe the most telling line in all the millions of words that have been uttered and written in this case: “The court appreciates your demeanor in this courtroom.”

   For me it summed up the entire massive FBI operation to deceive and ensnare these two men, who had not been supporting terrorism in any way, the vigorous prosecution by the U.S. attorney’s office, and the trial itself. The court appreciates your demeanor.

   Meaning, the court appreciates your trembling and your weeping. The court appreciates your fear. The court appreciates your humiliation in front of your family.

   The court — meaning Judge McAvoy — did emphatically not appreciate Yassin Aref proudly and defiantly asserting his innocence. Not at all. But the court did appreciate Hossain’s choking. The court liked it very much.

   And I ask you: Is that not the essence of terrorism? The instilling of fear in innocent people, making them quake before you and relishing it?

   I think it is. I think that’s what our government has endeavored to do in this case, and probably in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. To show people our power and make them bloody-well tremble for all the world to see.

   And when they do tremble like poor Mohammed Hossain, pizzamaker from Bangladesh, who never bothered anyone, the court appreciates it.

   And so does the FBI, and so does the U.S. attorney’s office. Which meant this was a terror trial after all, in an interesting reverse sort of way.

   Of course, it didn’t do Mohammed any good. He got the 15 years anyway. The sentences were decided in advance, and Judge McAvoy simply read them off with all their complicated explanations from a document he had already written, including the generous deductions for no criminal backgrounds, for being good family men, and for not having sought the opportunities to commit the crimes of which they were convicted, in other words for being set up.

   I think Yassin was lucky the judge didn’t depart from the already-written document and give him more than 15 years for his brazen truth-telling.

Carl Strock can be reached at 395-3085 or by e-mail at

January 6, 2008

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