Daily Gazette (Schenectady) : The View From Here

Sunday, February 04, 2007


Carl Strock | February 4, 2007

As the Albany Muslim men targeted by the FBI await sentencing, I visited one of them, Yassin Aref, at the Rensselaer County Jail the other day to see how he is preparing himself for the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison and what he is thinking and feeling.

I found him full of life in his own way––talkative, analytical, and thoughtful.

"If they want to put me life in prison, they can do it," he said in his imperfect but rapidly improving English, "but I have one question: Why? I think they know I did nothing in my entire life…I did not participate in any violence, and especially I never did anything against America."

He is a 36-year-old Kurdish refugee from Iraq who was sent to this country seven years ago as part of a United Nations resettlement program. He has a wife and four young children in legal limbo in Albany. He was found guilty of nine counts of supporting terrorism as the result of an elaborate sting operation run by the FBI, and he is scheduled to be sentenced a week from tomorrow in federal court. The government is asking for a sentence of at least 30 years to life, which if he got, he would probably have to spend at a "supermax" prison in the Midwest.

Is he scared?

No, he said, "I’m not scared any more. I’ll take it, even the death penalty...I am 100 percent sure, the judge, the jury, the FBI, they know I am innocent. They saw everything, they knew everything. I am a victim for their own policy, that’s all, to show people they are fighting terrorists."

An assessment, by the way, that I basically agree with. The FBI needed to show it was on top of the terrorism threat, and as the bearded imam of a local mosque, he was a convenient showpiece, even though there was nothing radical about him, much less terroristic.

What would be fair?

"If they want to be fair they must apologize to my children and let me go back to my family, but if they want to hang me, I’ll take it proudly," he said as we sat in a small conference room at the jail talking over a metal table.

He does not much focus on himself and the wreck that his life has become in his adopted country. "I’m one person," he said. "Maybe 700,000 died in Iraq. Most saw no trial, no court."

"If not for wife and children," he said, "I have no problem. I sit and read a book. This is punishment for them. Their life has been destroyed more than my life."

Sitting and reading a book is something he has plenty of time for. Since his bail was revoked in September 2005 he has been in so-called protective custody, meaning solitary confinement, locked into his one-man cell 23 hours a day, allowed out only for a daily shower and a visit to a recreation yard, which, until his co-defendant joined him in October 2006, was a solo visit. Plus he gets an hour a week of religion class and an hour a week of group prayer, which, however, he is not allowed to lead.

He is behind a steel door, with a small window onto the cellblock at eye level and a small grate at knee level. He is in there with a bunk, a toilet, a sink, a locker and a desk. "I keep myself busy with mainly three things," he told me. "Prayer and holy book; books and reading; and listening to news."

He is allowed to have a small radio with earphones, and he listens a lot to National Public Radio, and especially to a program by Amy Goodman, "Democracy Now." He wants to tell Amy Goodman, "If not your program and my holy book, I lost my mind."

And, oh yes, "I sing a lot, and I sleep too. I cry sometimes, too."

The songs are his own compositions, in Kurdish, 30 of them so far. And of course the tears are his own.

He has also busied himself writing his life story, some of which I have read, including the parts about his childhood in a hard-scrabble village of the mountains of northern Iraq where food was so scarce that he remembers his father often saying, when asked what he would like to eat, that he would take anything softer than stones.

He reminded me of that when I asked him how the food was in jail. "I have no complaint about the food," he said. "In Iraq many days we could not even get bread to eat. I saw people eat leaves of tree"––during Saddam Hussein’s war of extermination against the Kurds. "This helps me now enjoy the food, whatever it is."

With only another week left before he learns his fate, he is not without hope. "When the U.N. sent me to this country, I hope the judge proves they did not send me to the wrong country," he said, pointing up one of the many ironies of this case––that he did not choose to come here. When he was going to be relocated from Syria, where he had sought refuge with his new wife from the turmoil in his homeland, his preference was for Europe, where there were more Kurds and he figured he would have an easier time fitting in.

He got shipped here willy-nilly, and right away did what so many new immigrants do, get a low-level job and start learning English. He worked as a janitor at Albany Medical Center, studied hard and soon became the prayer leader, or imam, at a storefront mosque on Central Avenue.

Then 9/11 happened, and one of the ways the world changed was the FBI got a new mandate: Find terrorists before they can strike again.

Yassin Aref was not a terrorist or anything close to a terrorist, nor was Mohammed Hossain, from Bangladesh, running a pizza shop. But they were bearded Muslim men, the FBI had Yassin’s name from someone’s address book in Iraq, which they took as ominous, and the FBI went after the two of them, sending a Pakistani snitch to try to dupe them into exchanging cash for checks in such a way that it could be construed as supporting an attack on the Pakistani consulate in New York, something there is no evidence that either man had ever dreamed of.

It worked, or at least it worked to the extent that the government was able to sell it to a jury, and now here they are, both officially guilty of crimes that could put them away for the rest of their lives, and both waiting for the final word from the judge.

I wish I could do something about all of this.


In case you’re wondering why I interviewed only Yassin Aref and not his co-defendant, Mohammed Hossain, the answer is that Yassin’s lawyer gave permission for an interview, which the jail requires, and Hossain’s lawyer did not. But you should not read anything into that.

Lawyers generally don’t want their clients to talk to the press, lest they say something damaging, and in this case, one lawyer made one call, and the other lawyer made another, that’s all. I wanted to talk to both of them, and I wish them both well, equally.

Carl Strock can be reached at 395-3085 or by e-mail at carlstrock@dailygazette.com