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Updated
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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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January 30, 2009

Justice For Wrongly Prosecuted Muslims

A guest editorial from Steve Downs, an appeal to our new President Obama to right the wrongs of the previous administration and defend the Bill of Rights

Note: The original petition is complete and has been sent.
Sign similar petitions here.

It’s funny how life works out sometimes. Attorney Steve Downs has done many positive things during his adult life, things that have helped make our world and our community a better place to live. And now that he’s retired from the State he is busier than ever.

For the latter part of his State career Steve headed a panel that reprimanded and removed bad judges from the bench. Like the removal of Albany City Court judge Cheryl Coleman, much to everyone’s relief. Or the two serious reprimands delivered to the startlingly corrupt Supreme Court justice Joseph Teresi, who is too politically protected to be removed. But Teresi could not ignore the message.

You know what? If I ever purposely commit a heinous crime, I’ll hire Coleman to defend me in court. She’s a vigorous defense lawyer who gets depraved killers sprung on vague technicalities. But if I’m ever falsely or unjustly arrested, Steve Downs will be the first name that will come to my mind.

Protesters At The FBI Fortress On McCarty Avenue, March 2004
Protesters At The FBI Fortress On McCarty Avenue, March 2004

Among Steve’s current retirement projects are several Save the Pine Bush (SPB) court cases, which he has pursued enthusiastically. Most people are not aware of how desperate are these SPB cases, fought to protect our local environment, but directly applicable to the entire State and beyond. Steve has brought new insight to SPB’s lawsuits, and helped open up new possibilities for protection of the Pine Bush ecosystem.

Most people don’t know any of that. Steve can save 30 kindergartners from a burning school bus, find a cheap and simple cure for cancer, put on a spandex super hero suit and bring the Bush administration to justice. No matter what he does, it will pale in comparison to his greatest accomplishment.

Now and forever, Steve Downs will always be known as THE GUY WHO REFUSED TO TAKE OFF HIS T-SHIRT AT PYRAMID CROSSGATES MALL.

For the ten people or so on the other side of the world who don’t recall, in January of 2003 Steve and his son were strolling among the shoplifters and gangbangers who roam the corridors of Pyramid Crossgates Mall. Without any warning, two security guards, following explicit orders from the Pyramid executives, confronted and essentially assaulted Steve in a public area of the mall.

The Pyramid guards told Steve to take off his “offensive” t-shirt or leave the mall. The shirt read “Give Peace A Chance.” In a split second decision, he did the right thing and refused. The silly-ass Guilderland Police were called in and Steve was promptly arrested and put in handcuffs.

Steve Downs And His Famous T-Shirt
Steve Downs And His Famous T-Shirt

It’s hard to remember today, but back in 2003 the bland phrase “Give Peace A Chance” was massively politically incorrect. We were in the flaccid grip of America’s elite Neocon enemies, who were at that time attempting to quickly overthrow the United States Constitution. Big corporations and their media, local, state and federal cops, Republicans and their Democrats, all were working together to impose corporate fascism on our nation.

All Steve did was say no, sort of like Rosa Parks did. But like Rosa Parks Steve was not alone, there were well-organized people who were waiting for someone like him to come along. Understand that these things almost never happen by accident. Rosa Parks had the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Steve had the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) to publicize the famous political assaults against them.

For the past six years I’ve mentioned Steve’s name to hundreds of people in conversation. Most look blank until I say “He’s the guy who refused to take off his shirt at Crossgates.” Every single person without exception easily remembers the incident. "Oh yeah, that was bad. You know that guy?" The fiasco is etched in the American mind, as well it should be.

Steve is a modest guy, not someone who looks for attention. I can easily imagine him wincing at being compared to Rosa Parks. Well, too bad Steve. What you did was very, very important, a story that needs to be told and retold.

Pyramid executives, facing approbation from the entire world (thanks to the then new internet) shamefacedly dropped their charges against Steve. Several local politicians, most notably assemblyman Jack McEneny, announced that they would introduce legislation to deal with abuse of public space inside malls, but of course they did nothing. And the only person to suffer was the security guard who obediently had Steve arrested. He was fired from his job.

Oh, and the politically incorrect t-shirt is now being carefully preserved by the New York State Museum.

Kathy Manley Reading A Banned Book
Kathy Manley Reading A Banned Book

Okay, Steve Downs is not supposed to be the main subject of this post. One of Steve’s retirement projects is the false arrest and imprisonment of former Albany Imam Yassin Aref and of pizza shop owner Mohammed Hossain. Along with fellow attorney Kathy Manley, Steve has worked hard on their trial and appeal. And both are leading members of the support group for the two Muslim men in prison and for their families who are still here in Albany.

Time out for a clarification. Yassin Aref did NOT see or even hear about the FBI’s famous half-dismantled rocket launcher before his false arrest. Nor did he ever hear a single word about plots against the Pakistani ambassador or anything else like that. Anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or a liar.

Mr. Hossain briefly saw the device across a room among a jumble of crap presented by a criminal con artist named Malik who had spent the last four months setting him up for the FBI. Not that seeing someone else hold up a rocket launcher is a crime. Hell, in some states you can legally purchase and possess rocket launchers. Unless of course you are not morally fit to own such a weapon. But I don't recall ever hearing that watching someone else hold up such a weapon is a "terroristic" act.

You see, other than the silly 17 second video of the scam artist Malik pulling out the partial rocket launcher for Mr. Hossain, there was no evidence to convict these men. Nothing.

Since this quick showing of an unfamiliar weapon was the only evidence, that makes Mr. Hossain the “terrorist” and not Mr. Aref. Both were given equal sentences of 15 years, but were sent to vastly different prisons. So... why is Mr. Hossain the “terrorist,” the only one of the two who actually saw the weapon, confined to a medium security prison in New Jersey, and Mr. Aref who saw nothing illegal is in an extraordinary super high security ethnically segregated former death row in Indiana?

Obviously, “terrorism” is not the reason for their unconstitutional imprisonment. The degree of punishment doled out to each of the men reveals convincingly that this entire Bush administration legal farce is pure political harassment. Nothing more.

We are definitely not safer because of this unamerican injustice. We are all much less secure, and all of us should be very alarmed.

Albany Supporters Of Aref And Hossain Outside The Federal Courthouse In NY City, March 2008
Albany Supporters Of Aref And Hossain Outside The Federal Courthouse In NY City, March 2008

So, you might ask, if there was no evidence, why did Steve Downs and Kathy Manley and all the other lawyers who volunteered their time, why did they lose both the trial and the appeal? Are they lousy lawyers?

That brings us to the heart of the matter. The only way to convict these men was by introducing secret evidence that neither the jury or the defense lawyers were allowed to see. Secret evidence. Take our word for it. You can trust the Bush administration to tell the truth.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) which is a department of the White House in Washington DC, and a Bush appointed vicious clown of a federal prosecutor named Glen Suddaby, used this case to undermine a basic principle of law that goes back essentially unchanged to medieval England. The principle is this: secret evidence is no evidence. If you can’t present your evidence in a public courtroom, then you cannot charge or convict.

The legal term for this principle is habeas corpus. The US Constitution is perfectly clear about this, only the most terroristic America haters would dispute habeas corpus. But unfortunately, terroristic America haters like Glen Suddaby, who is now a federal judge, are deeply imbedded in our deeply dysfunctional federal justice system. And the FBI, which derives all of it’s power and legitimacy from the person of the President, has demonstrated a hatred of and ready willingness to overthrow the US Constitution.

How can a lawyer fight secret evidence? At least three times during the trial, the idiot judge told the jury "There were good and valid reasons for the FBI to target Yassin Aref." This ranks among the most utterly stupid and blatantly anti-american comments ever delivered by a sitting federal judge during a trial.

What about the jury? I asked Steve several times about the carefully selected jury, why were they so foolish? I mean, if I was on that jury (no way) it might have hung 11 to 1, but there wouldn’t have been any convictions without evidence. Not that day. What was their problem, why did these spineless wimps on the jury allow themselves to be manipulated by America’s enemies in the courtroom?

At first Steve was annoyed with my question, but eventually he realized that it was a serious inquiry. He finally explained, “The jury could see that there was no evidence of ‘terrorism,’ but at the end of the day they said to themselves, ‘But what if they really are terrorists? Better safe than sorry.’ You have to understand the mood of the times, how badly people were frightened by nine eleven.”

Funny, I was not terribly upset the day that nine eleven was happening, I’d been expecting something like that to happen for some time. I was actually relieved that it wasn’t worse, a “nuke in a suitcase” as a friend of mine had been talking about. But I became bug eyed terrified by the reaction to nine eleven, the pointless wars, the censorship, the nullification of the Bill of Rights, and most of all the public paralysis as our nation was being beaten to death by our "leaders."

Kathy Manley, Steve Downs, Daily Gazette Columnist Carl Strock, Albany Mosque President Shamshad Ahmad
Promoting Yassin Aref's Extraordinary Autobiography at the Spencertown Festival of Books

Fine, but who cares about the rights of a couple of foreign immigrants? Well, once the political elites have effectively eliminated habeas corpus from the Constitution they can use secret evidence against YOU.

Imagine this scene. Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings finds out that not only did you not vote for His preferred candidate in the last election, you’ve been supporting His biggest political enemy Dominick Calsolaro with monetary contributions and volunteer time. Clearly, The Mayor needs to make an example of you as a warning to others.

So Jerry Jennings calls up some of His buddies in the Republican Party, “C’mon, help me out here.” In exchange for unknown favors from Jerry, Federal Judge Glen Suddaby makes arrangements to have YOU charged with terrorism. Next thing you know you are in a courtroom feeling very helpless because you can’t see the evidence against YOU... or even if there is any evidence.

YOU are now in big trouble. If you are lucky, Jerry Jennings will have a little talk with you before the trial ends. “How about you lay off bugging Me, and stop supporting that a--hole Calsolaro. Tell you what. Make Me a promise, and I’ll talk to the judge. Maybe that secret evidence will go away.”

Unthinkable? Maybe five years ago, but not any more. The Aref/Hossain mistrial makes this scenario all too possible.

The Media At The Book Announcement.  At The Same Time The News Was Breaking About Eliot Spitzer's Smearing By The Bush White House.  Most Of The Media People Present Chose To Stay
The Media At The Book Announcement. At The Same Time The News Was Breaking About Eliot Spitzer's Smearing By The Bush White House. Most Of The Media People Present Chose To Stay

Here’s the problem today. There are no more appeals left for these guys except the US Supreme Court. I hear Kathy Manley is working on that, but even she acknowledges that’s almost hopeless. Everybody knows that the Supreme Court contains five Republican Party hacks who hate the US Constitution, and who put their party before their country.

So the only thing left is to knock on the door of the royal palace and beg the emperor for mercy. That’s what this petition is all about. It’s not asking President Obama for a pardon for Mr. Aref and Mr. Hossain. It is asking the President to review the process that convicted these men, and to take a hard look at the issues and motivations and personalities that created this farce. That’s all.

Right now the President is looking hard at the Justice Department that he inherited from America’s enemies. Scandal has been brewing for years over there, barely suppressed with great effort by Bush and his handlers. We’ll be hearing plenty more about the US Attorney Scandal in the next year.

Steve Downs has written a hell of a header on this petition for the President to read. It’s a very elegant piece of writing. Please read it. And sign, not for these two unlucky immigrants, but for yourself. Yesterday they came for Mr. Aref and Mr. Hossain, tomorrow they will come for YOU.

 

Dear President Obama and Attorney General Holder:

We join with the consensus of people who believe that upon taking office you must move swiftly to close Guantanamo, end warrantless electronic surveillance, and prevent the U.S. from engaging in further torture. These fundamental errors arose because the Justice Department succumbed to post-9/11 hysteria and set aside the Constitution and a long legal tradition of due process and respect for human rights to sanction illegal government policies aimed primarily against Muslims.

Yassin Aref Last Month In Terre Haute
Yassin Aref Last Month In Terre Haute

The fundamental errors of the Justice Department did not stop just at international issues such as Guantanamo and torture, but continued into domestic prosecutions of Muslims based on suspicion of possible future criminal activity, rather than on actual crimes committed. Obviously, prosecuting innocent people because of suspicion that they might commit crimes in the future is highly illegal, and violates the Constitution and our legal tradition in the same way as the Bush Administration’s policy on torture or Guantanamo violates it. That these prosecutions were directed at a particular religious group – Muslims – makes the errors all the more offensive to American notions of justice. We ask you to review these prosecutions.

Project SALAM is an internet project, whose web address is listed above, dedicated to recording and documenting the Justice Department’s illegal abuses against the Muslim community after 9/11. On our website we have listed approximately 400 cases that we believe may have resulted in injustice – and the number keeps growing. Rather than provide you with massive amounts of material showing this abuse, we are including with this letter only a sample of newspaper columns from around the country showing how independent newspaper reporters reacted to some of the phony, over-hyped, under-proved prosecutions of Muslims that have occurred around the country. If this material does not convince you that an investigation is necessary, we will be happy to provide more.

The abuses in the prosecution of innocent Muslims have not received the same publicity or scrutiny that Guantanamo or the torture policy have, but they have resulted in equally serious or even greater abuses. We believe that large numbers of innocent or overcharged Muslims are serving long prison terms based on illegal and unconscionable prosecution tactics, where the prosecutors knew or believed that the defendants were not guilty of any crime or were not guilty to the extent prosecuted. If an independent inspector were to examine the files of these cases, he or she would discover memos indicating that the prosecutions were begun not because the prosecutors believed the defendants had committed crimes, but at best because they believed the defendants were suspicious or might commit crimes in the future, and at worst because they believed that a successful prosecution might intimidate the Muslim community, or boost approval of the administration at the polls, or justify the large budgets given to law enforcement after 9/11, or lead to the “cooperation” of the target defendant against other suspicious targets. In many instances, no criminal activity would have existed at all but for the fictional conspiracies or terrorist plots created by the prosecutors themselves.

Often the charges and the proof against the defendants rely on guilt by association and on the demonizing of free speech and lawful activities. Some of the common factors in these prosecutions have been the use of illegal wiretaps, secret evidence withheld from the defense, and entrapment of the defendants using criminals hired as "informants" to suggest activities for which the defendants had no predisposition. Prosecutors have intimidated juries with fear tactics, hyped pretrial press conferences, exaggerated security precautions at trial, mistranslated documents, introduced phony expert testimony, and admitted irrelevant but prejudicial material as “evidence.” The defendants, once convicted, have often been sent to a special Muslim prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, the Communication Management Unit (CMU), where their ability to communicate with the outside world has been severely restricted, and they are given minimal or no services that are normally afforded prisoners in other jails.

Mohammed Hossain At His Arrest
Mohammed Hossain At His Arrest

Many of the questionable prosecutions originated in a special terrorism unit in Washington which used warrantless NSA material to illegally generate suspicion and target individuals. Because the NSA material has been deemed secret, it could not be challenged or revealed to the defendants to show it was unreliable or false. (In the same way, the Justice Department classified secret legal memos that led to the establishment of Guantanamo, secret rendition, torture, and other abuses so that none of it could be challenged and shown to be false.)

Where it is known that a certain government agent committed perjury in some cases to obtain convictions, it is an established practice to appoint an independent investigator to examine all of the cases in which the agent testified to determine if the agent committed perjury in the other cases as well. Here it is beyond question that the Bush Administration engaged in highly illegal tactics to punish innocent people, mostly Muslims, in places like Guantanamo, and it is a matter of this country’s honor as well as justice for the victims to examine all of the cases in which such injustices may have occurred, including domestic cases.

All around the country, groups have been formed (by Muslims and non-Muslims) to protest particular cases of injustice, and these groups may send you information about the particular injustices they have observed. But tragically, in many cases the U.S. government’s tactics of scapegoating the Muslim community were successful, and no groups were formed to protest or advocate for wrongly prosecuted Muslims. It is especially for these cases of injustice that we ask that an independent investigation be conducted. Neither appointed defense counsel nor the courts can successfully protect innocent people when the government covers up its illegal acts by secrecy. Only a reformed Justice Department, which conducts an investigation of these cases by an independent counsel, can clean the stain of injustice from its record of abuse against the Muslim community in America.

You may contact us at any of the addresses below.
Yours very truly,

Stephen Downs Esq., lawyer, 26 Dinmore Road, Selkirk NY. 12158; (518) 767-0102; swdowns68@aol.com

Note: The original petition is complete and has been sent.
Sign similar petitions here.

If you are Interested in a copy Of Yassin Aref's autobiography "Son Of Mountains, My Life As A Kurd And A Terrorist" there are still some copies available here.


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Posted by: CommonSense
Posted on: 02/03/2009
Comments:
Dan -

This is a truly moving account which absolutely sickens me. I tend to hold the mainstream media contempt, but frankly I didn't realize that this man was convicted based on "secret" evidence. What an absolute disgrace.

How was this presented to the jury? Were they given an instruction by a judge stating that they were to somehow consider that secret evidence existed that damned these men?


Posted by: hailstorm518
Posted on: 02/04/2009
Comments:
CommonSense:

This situation was well documented even by the mainstream press as if there was nothing wrong with the proceeding. The bogus charges and lack of tangible evidence were plain to see to anyone who even bothered to read the story in the TimesUnion. And, of course, Metroland presented more in-depth analysis of the trial.

Not only were these men convicted on "secret evidence", but the prosecution didn't even make an effort to deny it. Our own government blatantly violated it's own constitution here and nobody tried to stop them.


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