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Not Just Guantanamo: US Torturing Muslim Pretrial Detainee in New York City

April 5, 2010
by Bill Quigley
t r u t h o u t

Today, in New York City, the US is torturing a Muslim detainee with no prior criminal record who has not even gone to trial.

For the last almost three years, Syed Fahad Hashmi has been kept in total pretrial isolation inside in a small cell under 24-hour video and audio surveillance. He is forced to use the bathroom and shower in full view of the video. He has not seen the sun in years. He takes his meals alone in his cell. He cannot see any other detainees and he is not allowed to communicate in any way with any prisoners. He cannot write letters to friends and he cannot make calls to anyone but his lawyer. He is prohibited from participating in group prayer. He gets newspapers that are 30 days old with sections cut out by the government. One hour a day, he is taken into another confined room where he is also kept in total isolation.

Children are taught that the US Constitution protects people accused of crimes. No one is to be punished unless their guilt or innocence has been decided in a fair trial. Until trial, people are entitled to the presumption of innocence. They are entitled to be defended by an attorney of their choice. And the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

The punishment of Hashmi has been going on for years while he has been waiting for trial. In addition to the punitive isolation he is subjected to today, he was denied the attorney of his choice. He was allowed only counsel investigated and preapproved by the government. He is not allowed to look at any translated documents unless the translator is preapproved by the government. He is not allowed any contact with the media at all. One member of his family can visit through the heavy screen for one hour every other week unless the government takes away those visits to further punish him. The government took away his family visits for 90 days when he was observed shadow boxing in his cell and talked back to the guard who asked what he was doing.

If the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, what is the impact of forced isolation? Medical testimony presented in his case in federal court concluded that after 60 days in solitary, people's mental state begins to break down. That means a person will start to experience panic, anxiety, confusion, headaches, heart palpitations, sleep problems, withdrawal, anger, depression, despair and oversensitivity. Over time, this can lead to severe psychiatric trauma and harm such as psychosis, distortion of reality, hallucinations, mass anxiety and acute confusion. Essentially, the mind disintegrates.

That is why, under international standards for human rights, extended isolation is considered a form of torture and is banned. The conditions and practices of isolation are in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Convention against Torture and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

In 1995, the UN Human Rights Committee stated that isolation conditions in certain US maximum security prisons were incompatible with international standards. In 1996, the UN special rapporteur on torture reported on cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in US supermax prisons. In 2000, the UN Committee on Torture roundly condemned the United States for its treatment of prisoners, citing supermax prisons. In May 2006, the same committee concluded that the United States should "review the regimen imposed on detainees in supermax prisons, in particular, the practice of prolonged isolation."

John McCain said his two years in solitary confinement were torture. "It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance effectively than any other form of mistreatment." The reaction of McCain and many other victims of isolation torture were described in a 2009 New Yorker article on isolation by Atul Gawande. Gawande concluded that prolonged isolation is objectively horrifying, intrinsically cruel and more widespread in the US than any country in the world.

Who is Hashmi? He grew up in Queens, New York, and attended Brooklyn College. He became an outspoken Muslim activist. He moved to London and received a master's degree in international relations there.

Yet, the federal judge hearing his case continues to approve of the forced isolation and the rest of the restrictions on this presumably innocent man. The reason that this is allowed to continue is that Hashmi is accused of being involved with al-Qaeda.

Hashmi is accused of helping al-Qaeda by allowing rain gear (raincoats, ponchos and socks) that were going to Afghanistan to be stored in his Queens apartment, he allowed his cell phone to be used to contact al-Qaeda supporters and he made post-arrest threatening statements.

Supporters of Hashmi have demonstrated outside his jail, set up a web site and have worked for years to alert the public to his torture. Articles by Amy Goodman, Chris Hedges and Jeanne Theoharris have been written over the past several years documenting and protesting these human rights violations.

But once accused of connections with terrorism or al-Qaeda, apparently the US Constitution and international human rights do not apply. Torture by the US is allowed. Pretrial punishment is allowed. The presumption of innocence goes out the window. Counsel of choice is not allowed. Communication with news media is not allowed.

The trial of Hashmi is set for April 28, 2010, in New York. Till then, he will continue to be tortured by the US government, whose star spangled banner proclaims it to be the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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