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October 14, 2007


A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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UPDATE: Welcome to visitors from Counterpunch, which chose this article as the Website of the Day for Oct. 26! Earlier articles on the persecution of Yassin Aref here and here.

UPDATE: 4/17/09 Welcome listeners from Democracy Now! Two more articles on Yassin Aref here and here.

October 14 , 2007

Dead Life In A Political Prison

At great risk to himself, Yassin Aref describes the interior of his federal cage... an Albanyweblog exclusive report.

Imagine being accused of a terrible crime that you did not commit, and had no intention of ever committing.

Then imagine that a psychopathic cabal of corrupt politicians, creatures who had seized power by altering the results of elections, arbitrarily decide that they want you to serve as a public scapegoat.

Now imagine that these evil politicos, desperate to create a diversion to cover their own vast crimes, send a cadre of secret police to frame you for this imaginary crime. After an obviously crooked show trial filled with obvious lies by the prosecution, and presided over by a spineless, biased judge, you are sent a thousand miles away to a be locked away for a long time in a specially constructed torture chamber. You are now a political prisoner.

This sort of thing happens all the time in third world countries ruled by vicious strongmen, places where thugs dictate their own arbitrary law with bullets. It doesn’t happen in our America. Right?

Yassin Aref at Terre Haute

I’ve written before about Kurdish immigrant Yassin Aref, former imam of the Albany Mosque. He has composed a description of life within the Communications Management Unit (CMU) at the Federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. It is a rare eyewitness account of conditions within a post-constitutional American prison, a domestic version of Guantanamo Bay.

Without any question, Mr. Aref will be punished with new physical and psychological tortures for writing this description. But he wants it to be disseminated as widely as possible. And he specifically told The Wife to ask me to put it up on my blog. (She’s sent him some of my articles. He says that I have a “sharp tongue.”)

So, for any harm that comes to Mr. Aref because of this article I am absolved of guilt. But I still type these words with regret and foreboding. Because of these words that you are reading, we may not be allowed to hear from Mr. Aref for a long time.

As far as I can see, the CMU at Terre Haute is geared toward revenge, to hurt people for the sake of hurting people. There is no pretense of rehabilitation, no thought of protecting society from harm. The place is nothing but a playground for thugs who like to make people suffer.

Letters arrive regularly at our house from Terre Haute. The Wife keeps saying to me, over and over, “I NEVER thought that I would EVER correspond with someone in prison.”

When I ask her why not, she hems and haws and gives me no clear answer. But I know why not. A nice, white middle class lady simply does not correspond with lower class thieves and murderers. That’s only inviting trouble into your life.

Funny how life turns out. Not everyone in prison is a criminal, and not everyone walking free is honest.

Attorney Steve Downs with Mr. Aref's Sons

Mr. Aref has many supporters outside the gulag walls besides The Wife. Thanks to the efforts of Jeanne Finley, Kathy Manley, Steve Downs and many others, Mr. Aref’s life story is nearing publication. It is an incredible story, a real page turner. Ms. Finley believes that it is the first story of its kind, a story that will soon become all too common.

Unfortunately, no publisher has been found for the book. Ms. Finley and others are putting up money for a vanity press run of 500 copies. It’s a shame that after all this effort to put together this incredible story that almost no one will get a chance to read it.

The simple solution to this problem is to put the entire book online as a free download. There are plenty of popular websites that will take an interest in a well-written account of a Kurdish refugee who traveled halfway across the globe in search of freedom and security only to find political persecution. This is a proven method that creates a readership, and is a great way to interest potential publishers.

And of course, taking advantage of the internet is the best way to get the book out there. Everyone should know the story of Yassin Aref.

And you and I need to know what happens inside the modern, up to date political prison. This is what we can expect after they come for each of us.

[NOTE: About the photos from Terre Haute. According to Mr. Aref, a photographer shows up at the CMU unit once a week, and the prisoners can pay one dollar to have their pictures taken! Another bizarre detail from an enclosed world that makes no sense. But despite everything, Yassin Aref has a sense of humor, as can be seen by this dark joke he sent to The Wife.]



Inside out and upside down:
Life at the “Communication Management Unit” of
Terre Haute Federal Prison

By Yassin Aref

(An imam who was targeted,
wrongly convicted and sentenced to 15 years in a
phony FBI sting operation)

As a Kurd born and raised in Iraq, I really understood what it was to be a second class citizen, and I knew what discrimination meant. All my life I was looking forward to the day when I could say: “Here I am! I exist, I can speak, I can choose.” Even, “I can say NO!” In the 25 years of my life in Iraq this never happened, until finally I gave up and left my country. I went to Syria, finished college and had three children who were born as foreigners with no citizenship. At that point I realized my mistake. Why did I marry? Why did I want children? Did I forget what I repeated for 22 years whenever someone asked me why I was not planning to marry? My answer was ready: I am not a man! I am not free, I have no rights, no country. How can I have a wife? I was a third class citizen just because I was a Kurd.

Yassin Aref In Syria, 1990s

When my name was approved by the UN for residency in the US, I thought I was going to get my freedom back. My children would learn what it was to have a normal life. But after we came I realized it would take time to learn the language and get a good job and become a citizen. Before any of that happened there was 9-11 which really changed things. There was discrimination, racism, and accusing the foreigner.

There is no justice and no rights for someone like me who is a foreigner and Muslim. They sent me to the special unit called “Guantanamo Bay on American Soil” for the following reasons:

To manage our communication (phone, visits, mail.)

Because we are supposedly terrorists and a danger to the community.

Let me explain what the government claims and make it clear for you that it is nonsense, an excuse for the new fascism, the new rule of discrimination.

There are people here who don’t have any contact with the outside. They never write or get mail, they have no phone calls and no visits. This was true when they were in regular units for years but still they were brought here. Which communications are being managed? Many others have a visit only once a year, phone calls once a month, mail once a week. How difficult is that to monitor? While secretly they wiretap millions of people and read billions of pieces of mail and email in this country! But they can’t manage to “follow” one 15 minute phone call per month so they must put the person in this Unit.

Marching In Support Of Mr. Aref, Albany, August 15

All our visits, even with family, must be through glass. Stopping me from hugging my baby has nothing to do with national security! Again, if it’s really a security concern let them give us non-contact visits for friends. But family, especially children under 10, have nothing to do with threats. Even if the people here were a danger (which I don’t believe, at least in most cases) there are thousands of criminals, even murderers, in medium security prisons like this. But they are all allowed contact visits every day, not 4 hours a month and through the glass. The law should be the same and all should have the same privileges. The only difference is that we are Muslims.

Someone like me whose family doesn’t have a penny and lives on charity, how can they travel 900 miles every month for a 2 hour non-contact visit? And what is my childrens’ sin ? Why are they not allowed to see their father? If they destroy the family like this, what must we expect for the community and the country? Family is the cornerstone of the community. Ruining the family is the real crime that is corrupting society.

How long does it take for our letters to reach our loved ones? Maybe I am lucky, because I can write in English, and send my mail inside the US, but those who write in Arabic, and send letters to their families overseas are all sick about the delay. Sometimes it takes two months for the letter just to leave the prison. If a man asks his mom how the weather is in January, he gets the answer ‘it’s too hot’ because his mom got the letter in July. If you ask how someone is doing they may be dead by the time you get your answer back. Of course the government claims they do this to prevent another 9-11, but they know this person is talking to his wife, writing to his mom, and sending pictures to his children. This is all to contact kin, which God commanded humans to do. If they delay the letters going to friends it’s not such a problem. But for family, why? You copy the letter, you read it, you translate it, how long does it take them to do that, one day, one week? So why does it take months?

The Government claims this is just like an ordinary unit in a medium security prison with the only difference involving communication. They brought a couple of non-Muslims here (still foreigners though) so whenever someone criticizes the government and says that it is against the law to discriminate based on race or religion, the government will say, “It’s not just for Muslims, there are Christians here too.” It is the same with Arabs, there are a few non-Arabs here.

But this game is not new. Many corrupt politicians do this. I am from Iraq and am a Kurd. There were no rights for Kurds in Iraq unless they sell themselves to the Government. Whenever some western journalist would ask Saddam why he treated the Kurds so badly, he would answer, “What are you taking about? My two deputies are Kurdish.” It’s the same policy and the same game that our families and children are now paying for. This Administration says the CMU is not just for Muslims and Arabs because there are a handful of non-Muslims and non-Arabs here.


The Government has been trying to put pressure on us and goad us into acting violently so that they will be able to justify their claim that we are dangerous. But the Government has failed. Even according to the guards here this Unit is the most peaceful they have ever seen in any prison, and they ask to be allowed to work here.

Here are some examples how the Government has selected people to try to pressure us.

We all know that due to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, there is daily fighting between Sunnis and Shiites, and between Arabs and Kurds. So the Government put one Iraqi Shiite with one Sunni and one Kurd (me). So every day when we hear the news reports they hope we get mad and fight each other! But we are very close friends and joke together.

It’s the same with Lebanon where daily there is fighting between anti-Syrian Christians and pro-Syrian Muslims. So here in the CMU the Government put three people from Lebanon: one Christian, one Shiite and one Sunni. Every time they hear that a car bombing in Beirut killed such and such person, how are they expected to react? While I was writing this about Lebanon I heard from NPR that Antoine Ghanem, the Lebanese Christian Parliament member who was known to be anti-Syria, was killed with at least six others. When I went outside I saw the Shiite (pro-Syrian) and Christian (anti-Syrian) Lebanese men walking together. I thought they must not have heard the news yet, but to my surprise they were talking about the incident, and the Christian was very worried because his whole family lives in the same block where Antoine was living. The Shiite was expressing regret to his friend for what had happened, and helping him to think positively and pray that his family was okay! Do extremist terrorists think like that?

In the same way that they selected Iraqis and Lebanese, the CMU policy makers chose Palestinians. Here one is accused of being an Islamist Hamas-supporter, and the other is from the Fatah Party. Every day we hear the news about fighting between Fatah and Hamas. When these two hear about what is gong on in Gaza and the West Bank, how are they affected? I don’t know how religious extremists would act, but these two are really mindful, and they reject what they hear on the news. But still they are in the CMU because they are supposedly wild dangerous extremists who can’t be around normal people! I wish someone outside would do research about everyone in the CMU and could find out how many murderers are here, and how many are actually a threat to national security.

As I said, in order to avoid claims of discrimination, the Government brought a few non-Muslims here. Most of them are Mexican and Spanish. There was only one white American here. He said he was in a regular compound before and often got into fights - that was why he was here, as punishment. He said he liked this Unit though because he didn’t need to fight anymore and get in more trouble.

Yassin Aref As Imam

When we pray, the Christians stop playing and even walking, and keep the Unit quiet out of respect. And when the Christians pray on the weekend, the Muslims stop everything and keep quiet. This place has been open for almost one year and there hasn’t been a single incident. There is nothing but respect between Muslims and Christians here. How is it that the quietest unit, according to all the guards, supposedly contains dangerous wild terrorists?

It is the same with black and white, and Mexicans and Americans. From what I have heard, almost everywhere else in the country there are problems between them, especially in the prisons. Dr. King’s dream is still waiting to become true. Only here in the CMU, it is not our children playing together, as Dr. King wished, but we ourselves who are playing together, joking, talking and sharing our food together. I wish Dr. King were alive to see how people in the CMU have gone far beyond color, language and race to defeat the Government’s plan and live together as a Family!

There are people here accused of being in the Red Army (Communist) and many accused of being Muslim extremists, but they share the pain and abuse of the CMU as best friends. There are Croats and Muslims here who don’t believe in what is going on between Croats and Serbs on one side and Muslims on the other. They don’t support separation and division, instead they believe in Justice, Freedom and Human Rights. This CMU which the Government imagined as a zoo for wild animals is really an example of how to solve the world’s problems!


This summer when the temperature was above 90 degrees, it was like we were living in an oven because there was no air conditioning. I was happy winter was coming so we would be okay for a couple months, but when I spoke with those who were here last winter, they told me that when that happens you will wish it was summer again and accept the oven, even prefer hell over this place in winter. I asked why and they said because the whole entire roof leaks, and because when the snow comes we can’t go out to spend some time in those small cages or play handball or basketball. And in many cells you spend most of the day bailing the water out so it doesn’t fill up. I thought they were joking, but when it rained last week I saw myself that the roof started leaking. When I told them now I knew they weren’t joking, they laughed and said just wait till the snow comes! I was there when one inmate asked a CO who was supposed to fix the air conditioning, why he was not coming. He said they were waiting for the Government to send the money. Billions go to the war but they can’t fix the roof or air conditioning here!

Even worse, we are under a threat every day. When we complain about something or ask why they don’t move us somewhere else until they fix this building, they answer that there is no other place for us except the ADX. [The Administrative Maximum or Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where inmates are subjected to sensory deprivation, kept in solitary and continuously deprived of all human contact, slowly driving them insane.] They say they can’t put us in any ordinary unit. So we constantly hear that if we don’t like it here we can always go to the ADX. Also, if we get in trouble and get a disciplinary ticket, there is always the threat that we will be transferred to the ADX. Currently there is someone waiting to be moved there, he has spent the last three weeks in the SHU [Solitary Housing Unit] waiting to be transferred. Yet they knew he did not have any serious disciplinary charges. People are not supposed to be placed in the ADX for such infractions!


I grew up in a poor family in a very poor area in a real difficult time. My illiterate father taught me to never complain about the food, to eat whatever you get and thank God for providing it. The point was that food is to keep you alive so don’t worry about taste – it will all be like dirt after a couple of hours. And you can’t taste it after you eat it anyway. This is the way I was brought up, and in many difficult situations my father’s ideas helped me. I would eat very simple food but enjoy it and feel that I was like a king... I had food! So here in this prison the food is very good as far as I’m concerned and there is more than enough. But those from other prisons are complaining.

But there is one thing. While we were fasting for Ramadan, they brought in pudding which said “best by Oct. 2005.” We showed it to a food service person and he simply said “Don’t eat it if you don’t want it.” I asked an inmate who is a doctor why this happened, and he said when he had asked, he was told it was because of budget problems. Another person held up a can of peaches and said, “Last night I had a can like this and took it to my cell. In the middle of the night I heard what sounded like an explosion. I looked and saw peaches everywhere – the can had exploded!” A couple others said they had joked that their cans looked pregnant because they were all swollen and bulging. We know the answer if we complain: “We are waiting for a new budget” and “Don’t eat it if you don’t like it.”


Yassin Aref At Terre Haute

Thank God I have been healthy and have not needed any medicine but those who do are really suffering. If you have any pain or even a broken bone, the emergency team gives you a plastic bag and says to put ice on it. Tests like X-rays will take weeks, and if you need to see a doctor rather than a nurse, it will take months. If you complain they will simply say “It’s not life-threatening.” But I was here when an inmate died. I still don’t know why but they said it was a heart attack. All we knew was his friend did not see him at breakfast, and after eating went to check on him, he found his body. Even if it was a heart attack, imagine what he must have gone through all alone. Usually in prisons they have an emergency button you can press. Not here. He could have been struggling all night. Maybe if someone had known his life could have been saved. But who cares... like they say, prisoners are just numbers. If one dies, it’s one less number.

Another night at about 2 am I heard someone banging on the door of his cell and yelling, “C.O.! C.O.!” Other inmates started shouting, “What’s going on?” He yelled back, “It’s not me but my neighbor – he’s diabetic and he collapsed... he is crying for help.” We all started shouting for the guards to check on him, and the doctor yelled that they should give him some honey or juice. It still took two hours until the emergency team arrived with a nurse. If his cellmate had not heard him and started shouting he would have died. Why is this a locked down unit but there are no emergency buttons in the cells?

To me it is clear that the Government separated us out and put us here for these reasons:

Most of the people here are victims of the Government, who targeted them and set them up. Then, during the prosecution, they claimed that these people are dangerous, that they intend to harm Americans and would support terrorists. So now, to keep the charade going, they must open a special unit and claim we are too dangerous to be in the general population.

As a matter of fact, most of the people are practicing Muslims. If they are living in the compound they will show other people what that means, and might even bring them to Islam. The Government doesn’t want that to happen, but can’t say we are in the CMU simply for being intelligent Muslims. So they say we are extremists! But anyone who comes to this Unit could never believe that these people are really dangerous. If it is based on our charges, my codefendant and I had the same charges – the only difference is he was found guilty for all of them, and I was acquitted of 20 out of 30. But he is in the general population. God knows I don’t want him to be here, I pray for him to be home with his family. But it seems that my real crime is that I can speak out and that I have good relations with people. That’s why I must be locked-down and quarantined.

The other big pressure here is that everyone has their own personal tragedy. For example, I can’t find any reason why I must serve 15 years. What did I do? What did I say to get 15 years? Why must I be separated from other human beings? Why am I treated like a wild animal? Why can’t I see my children? I am from Iraq and daily I hear that 100 - 200 are dying. How would you feel if you heard that about your country? While I was writing this letter I heard the news that cholera has spread to Kurdistan, in Iraq, in fact, in Sulymania where my family and my wife’s family lives.

How can I find out if my family is all right? I have not had contact with them in two years! I left my sick wife and four young children. I left them with nothing. How will they survive? My baby was born after I was locked up, she doesn’t know what is “father.” And I can’t hug her because that is considered a threat to national security!! How can they travel 900 miles to see me behind the glass? They are in school from 8am-3pm Monday through Friday, and that is the only time I am allowed to make phone calls. So I can’t speak to them until summer? They are not citizens of any country in this world. They were born in Syria but as Iraqi Kurds did not get any papers. They are not registered in Iraq. They are growing up in this country but have no citizenship and no clear status. What will happen if they are deported? Where can they go?

Most people here have similar and even worse problems than me. If not for our faith in God we could never survive this. But still we are all living in peace and trying to smile and respect even the non-Muslims among us. What kind of danger do we pose and what kind of terrorists are we?

Another pressure here comes from the staff. While most are good and do their jobs professionally, as they say, there is a bad apple in every barrel. With some of them you can read the hatred and racism in their faces. They look at us as wild animals and enemies because all they have heard is that we are terrorist extremists who have come to kill their children, destroy this country, and destroy their way of life as the President is always saying. Really this is totally upside down. Lies are Truth and Truth is a Lie – Killers are Peacemakers and Peacemakers are Killers.

But all this pressure and oppression has failed to make us react in kind. Instead we daily remind and advise each other to be patient and tell each other not to answer their threats. That we should complain only to God and withhold our anger. We look and wait for the American people to wake up and look at what their Government is doing. We came here legally, mainly as refugees, in order to live free. We were respecting the law and looking at ourselves as guests here but we never thought that those who invited us and promised us freedom and help to build our future would target us to cover up their bad policies, and that there are no laws to protect us.

Locking us down in this old leaky building and prohibiting us from hugging our children and calling them often on the phone will never bring peace to this country, and will never make this nation safer. But it is really putting the justice system in this country on trial.

Is it true that all humans are equal?

Is it true that everyone is free to choose his faith?

Are human rights really protected by law?

We hear this but we would like to see it!!

Written on the back of this photo:

This picture its the same day when Mr. Steve brought my children but they cut our visit 8-27-07
From right
1. Yassin Aref (your brother)
2. Enaam Arnaut
3. Hatam Fariz
I wish this picture prove for you that I am fine - still living - waiting - hopefully for my appeal

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