For the raging ‘patriotic’ citizens of America clamouring for ever-more stringent standards to strengthen national security and win the epic war against ‘terrorism’, the case involving seven Raleigh-area men accused of various terrorism related activities, might be characterised as an utter failure. A failure not for its service of injustice to marginalised voices of America’s Muslim communities, but rather a failure because the defendants were not simply stripped and lynched off of a sturdy, North Carolina oak.
And yet, it seems as though on the other end of the spectrum, the raging patriotic citizens clamouring for ever-more stringent standards to strengthen national security without exploiting the terrorism catchphrase and sacrificing judicial integrity, are as equally dismayed.
With alarming predictability, federal agencies have bypassed constitutional provisions of guaranteeing due process and fair trials, long-standing malpractices only now codified, without the compulsory legal acrobatics, in the NDAA (National Defence Authorization Act). Over a decade’s worth of terrorism trials have taught the American government how to sustain the pretense of upholding law while simultaneously dismantling it.
From its informant ridden inception, the Raleigh case was no different, unapologetically brandishing the hallmarks of a federally manipulated and self-congratulatory conviction. Even before trial, a strategic assortment of media scaremongering, lengthy pre-trial detentions and threats of life sentences secured at least three guilty pleas and potentially damning testimony despite an overwhelming lack of evidence pointing to any crime after 750 hours of video and audio surveillance. The addition of an indifferent and narcoleptic jury with ties to the world’s most powerful military was pure luck; serendipitous icing on the government’s statistical cake.
All said and done, the four defendants who stubbornly maintained their innocence, were generously rewarded for their integrity with heavy sentences ranging from 15 to 45 years in Supermax prisons (whose harsh policies of solitary confinement have been internationally reviewed by human rights groups to be inhumane and a form of torture). One of these defendants was the 24 year old Ziyad Yaghi, who, like his co-defendants, was incriminated by mere circumstances that you, the reader, should beware of.
What you should know about Ziyad Yaghi is that, like your son or brother, he was once an average teenager, doing the average things that teenagers do: playing b-ball, working out or swimming. But more particularly, also doing the average things an Arab, Muslim kid would do; growing a beard, traveling ‘home’, exploring his religion and getting married. Now, after being served a 31 and a half year sentence, he stares at the walls of a small cell for 23 hours a day, ostensibly for doing things that an average kid from his demographic would do.
If Ziyad Yaghi were not Muslim, the entire premise of the prosecutorial case against him would be wholly irrelevant; that he and others were the ‘wrong’ type of Muslims was at the crux of establishing malicious intention. Which brings up two important points: what is the government’s role, if any, in dictating acceptable and unacceptable religious doctrine? And how is a religious prerequisite not a predicate for religious persecution?
The issues of freedom of religion and free speech are further conflated as the main evidence introduced against Yaghi were isolated facebook posts, sans context, expressing dislike for ‘munafiqs’ (hypocrites) and ‘kuffars’ (disbelievers); comments that were politically and religiously charged, perhaps even unsavory and immature to some, but protected not only under the first amendment, but sentiments which are found within the Qur’an itself. Have we reached the point where freely discussing religious thought and claiming a particular faith is unquestionably criminal?
Ironically, before Yaghi himself was ever charged of any crime, he refused to act as an informant against Daniel Boyd. As in similar cases, this polite reluctance to violate the fabric of a religious community, always results in attracting the ire and persecution of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation). Besides being an outright abuse of authority, where are the nonexistent civil protections that allow a citizen to decline participation in a government conspiracy to incriminate himself or others without legal retribution?
Another benign action criminalised by the prosecution was Yaghi’s travel to Egypt and Jordan, two countries which receive a considerable amount of US aid and are not known for hosting terrorist training camps. To further illustrate the bizarre nature of assuming a sinister intention based on travel to these particular countries, one can not imagine the FBI accusing a white, Christian, middle-aged banker of attempting to join a jihadist training camp after touring the pyramids or the ruins of Petra.
Yet Yaghi had a reason more compelling than leisure and wanderlust to visit abroad; he, like thousands of youth of the Arab diaspora, do every year, was making a significant journey overseas to reacquaint himself with his ancestral homeland and explore an opportunity for betrothal in the traditional Arab way. In addition to being ignorant of the constitutionally protected religious tenets of the defendants, the geriatric jury that convicted Yaghi were equally out-of-touch with a decades-long culture of visiting ‘terrorist’ countries practised by Arab and Asian Americans and thus found this explanation for travel unconvincing.
Perhaps, out of all of the un-incriminating evidence unveiled at trial, the most disturbing in light of the conviction was the fact that all who plead guilty, affirmed repeatedly during testimony, that Yaghi and Omar Aly Hassan were not part of the conspiracy that they had plead guilty to. In fact, Yaghi had minimal contact with the confessed ringleader, Daniel Boyd, and was never heard or seen on any of the recordings, much less heard or seen participating in any ‘conspiracy’. How can a jury ignore such exculpatory claims from a host of prosecutorial witnesses?
Even a cursory review of the facts pre-trial, would lead one to believe that the allegations of any wrong doing could easily be dismissed, yet, as in many terrorism cases before, legal counsel advised Yaghi to plead guilty to serve out a reduced sentence like his co-accused. But why should an innocent man have to plead guilty? Clearly something is wrong with the judicial machine, and a reality check would remind us all that it has, in fact, always been the case; a machine that has historically steam-rolled the rights of minorities.
However, the machine can only be corrected by the defiant stance of those like Yaghi, Mehanna and others, who refuse to put personal gain above principle. For now, Yaghi has one more chance. When filing an appeal, he will hopefully find a lawyer that will fight unrelentingly for his freedom and the preservation of the constitution. His mother is desperately searching to finance this endeavour and to save her son from spending the next three decades in a closet.
This appeal is not just about Ziyad Yaghi, but concerns all of us who count on the bravery of a few to change the future. Yaghi’s ability to secure a dedicated legal team for $50,000, may seem a steep price for some, but when it means possibly overturning an unjust conviction and helping regain our civil liberties, it’s a small price communities everywhere can pay to fight repression.