Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

From Sting to Frame-Up: The Case of Yassin Aref

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

From Sting to Frame-Up: The Case of Yassin Aref

Article excerpt

FOR THE PAST three years, I have witnessed the federal government's attempt to destroy the life and family of Yassin Aref, a Muslim imam from Albany, New York. In 2004, the government brought bogus terrorism-related charges against him in an FBI sting operation. In October 2006 Yassin was convicted of some of the charges, and in April 2007 he was sent to the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana to serve a 15-year sentence. There he was placed in the Communication Management Unit (CMU), a special wing of the prison formed in December 2006 for the purpose of isolating prisoners, especially Muslims whose offenses include anything even indirectly related to terrorism (see May/June 2007 Washington Report, p. 12).

I am one of Yassin's attorneys. After retiring as a lawyer from a New York state agency, I volunteered to help lead attorney Terry Kindlon with Yassin's case and trial, so I've had plenty of time to watch the disintegration of my client's life and family, as well as the collateral damage and fear my government has inflicted on the Muslim community.

Yassin, an Iraqi Kurd, came to Albany in 1999 from Syria as a refugee from Kurdistan, in northern Iraq. Eventually he became the imam at a local mosque in Albany, New York. At some point after 9/11, the FBI began to illegally wiretap and eavesdrop on the mosque and on Yassin. In a Jan. 17, 2006 story, The New York Times reported that this warrantless wiretapping was conducted under a National Security Administration (NSA) program which bypassed required court approval.

When this illegal eavesdropping failed to turn up any improper activity on Yassin's part, the FBI engaged a Pakistani immigrant named Malik, who already had been convicted of 80 to 100 felonies in a scheme to market fraudulent drivers licenses, and essentially told him that the government would make all of his legal troubles go away (and cancel his scheduled deportation) if he could entrap Yassin into terrorist activity by means of a concocted "sting."

According to the fictitious plot, the government set Malik up as a supposed secret arms merchant who sold missiles to terrorist groups, particularly JEM (Jaish-e-Mohammed), which sought to liberate Muslim Kashmir from India. Malik offered to loan money to a member of Yassin's mosque if Yassin would witness the transactions for free in the Islamic tradition (as a notary does, under American law)-a perfectly legal and even praiseworthy act by Yassin, under normal circumstances.

For a proper "sting," Malik was to tell Yassin that the money for the loan came from the sale of missiles to JEM, which intended to use the missiles in an assassination in New York City. If Yassin witnessed the loan transactions with the intent to help Malik conceal the illegal source of the money for the loan, he would be guilty of several terrorist-related crimes.

But Malik did not give Yassin the necessary information for him to understand the illegality of the plot, the loan, or the witnessing. As a result, the sting never developed; instead, it became a simple frame-up by the government. Information concerning the missile plot essentially was woven into four conversations, which Malik secretly tape-recorded over a six-month period, in such a way that Yassin, who was still learning English, would not have understood what was being proposed. Indeed, it is unlikely that anyone would have understood it.

In three of the conversations the references to a missile were so obscure or concealed that Yassin had no reaction to them, and apparently did not even hear or understand them. In these tapes he appeared completely unaware of any illegal activity. In one conversation, Malik handed Yassin a wad of money to count in connection with the loan. While Yassin was concentrating on counting the money, Malik pulled out the handle of a shoulder-fired missile (which looked like a large stapler) and said in an aside to the recipient of the loan (Yassin's co-defendant), "This is part of the missile I showed you. …

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