This should not be who we are: Mahdi Hashi’s rendition and solitary confinement

In the last 10 days, the story of Mahdi Hashi’s hunger strike has seeped, barely, into the public sphere. There has been one “official” tweet about Hashi’s failing health, as he entered his fourth week of a hunger strike at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. There have been few stories about it since that tweet.

Hashi’s name is not well known, but his treatment at the hands of the U.S. and U.K. over the last year should give pause. A British citizen of Somali descent, he migrated to England at a young age with his parents. At 18, he was a community youth worker, and was continually pressured by MI5 (the British equivalent of the CIA) to cooperate with them and spy on fellow Somalis (akin to the tactics of the FBI and the NYPD). Growing tired of their harassment, Hashi filed a complaint with his local MP Frank Dobson in 2009.  As well, he spoke with a caseworker at Cage Prisoners, which recorded his story (see pp.18-20 of pdf). ​

But things became worse. On several occasions, he was detained at British airports, interrogated and warned against leaving. On one occasion, after having been interrogated at Gatwick Airport, he insisted on continuing his trip to Djbouti to visit his grandmother, only to be detained and interrogated for hours there. He was refused entry and sent back to the U.K. Finally, escaping the unceasing harassment, Hashi moved to Somalia, where he married and had a child. In mid-2012, at the age of 23, Hashi disappeared altogether. Worried, his family appealed to the British government, who informed them that their hands were tied, because—alas—he was no longer a citizen.

Perhaps because he renounced it, you speculate. Not quite. The British government disfranchised him.  British Home Secretary Theresa May stripped him of his citizenship, which she informed him by letter:

“As Secretary of State, I hereby give notice … that I intend to have an order made to deprive Mahdi Mohamed Hashi of your British citizenship.

‘This is because I am satisfied that it would be conducive to the public good to do so. The reason for this decision is that the Security Service assess that you have been involved in Islamicist (sic) extremism and present a risk to the national security of the United Kingdom due to your extremist activities.’

May has made it a signature of her tenure to strip 17 others of their citizenship, in each case doing so after they left the country. All but one (Anna Chapman, the Russian spy) were Muslim. Technically, the British state may only do this when a person has dual citizenship, in order to avoid leaving a person stateless. Still, it is difficult to argue that Hashi could have turned to the Somali government to defend him, even if he had learned of the decision before he disappeared. May’s letter to Hashi was dated several weeks before he was rendered to the United States.

The ease and timing of the British decision is worthy of harsh and loud criticism.  Hashi had never been arrested in the U.K. However, at age 16, he was held in an Egyptian jail for nine days for a visa that still had  two weeks left before renewal was needed. That event, which Hashi reported to the advocacy group Cage Prisoners back in 2010, was somehow linked to suspected terrorist activity, although it is unclear whether there was evidence to back that suspicion. It is also unclear what constitutes evidence of “Islamicist extremism.”  By the time he moved to Somalia, there were still no evident ties to terrorists — except insofar as his work with British Somali youth was automatically assumed to be such a tie. In other words, Hashi’s guilt was through his association with other Somalis.

For the British, whose collusion with the U.S. on most things “counterterrorism” is noteworthy, this was an occasion to let someone else deal with the “problem” of Mahdi Hashi. As Paul Pillar, an ex-CIA employee suggests in this very good article by the Guardian’s Ian Cobain on the British collaboration with the U.S.:

From the United Kingdom point of view, if it is going to be a headache for anyone: let the Americans have the headache.

In other contexts — outside of America’s counterterrorism practices, where accusing young men of criminal and terrorist activities without evidence is endorsed uncritically in the name of national security by all good Americans – we call such suspicion in the absence of evidence racism. When the NYPD does it, we call it racial profiling.

African-AmericanLatino and Muslim communities in New York are intimately familiar with the judgment of “guilt by association.”

Hashi was detained, abused, and interrogated in Djbouti for several months before being handed over for more interrogations to the Americans. After several months, he suddenly appeared in handcuffs in a Brooklyn Federal Court right before Christmas of 2012, along with 2 Swedish men of Somali descent.

No news had been heard about Hashi until Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, when Cage Prisoners reported that he had been on a hunger strike and that his health was failing.

The MCC, where Hashi is being held in solitary confinement, did not confirm that he was on a hunger strike or that he was in critical condition. According to Saghir Hussain, the solicitor for Hashi’s family, they learned of his strike through a phone call with Hashi, which was interrupted “after about 60 seconds or so.” Calls to Hashi’s attorney, Harry Batchelder, were not returned.

According to Arnaud Mafille, a caseworker at Cage Prisoners, the organization that originally tweeted out the news, “He was in hospital for a week due to his hunger strike. He was diagnosed with jaundice. He was released from the hospital after one week. As far as we know he’s still on a hunger strike.”

He does not appear to have been force-fed yet. The Hashi family was unable to learn much more because of the special administrative measures (SAMs) imposed on him.

According to Mafille, Hashi is refusing food in a last ditch effort to have the SAM’s, which have imposed extremely limited contact with his family, removed.  SAM’s often consist of extreme conditions, such as daily 23-hour solitary confinement, and extremely restrictive contact or communication with anyone including family members and attorneys. SAM’s have also been imposed upon Muslim prisoners for “infractions” such as praying in a language other than English, or even praying with an open mouth.  SAM’s have become de rigeur for most, if not all, men suspected of giving material support to organizations or individuals themselves suspected of terrorism. These determinations are often based on guilt by association with an organization or individual, as for persons of Somali descent who may have donatedeven a small amount of money for charitable purposes to groups affiliated with Al-Shabaab.

No new details in Hashi’s case were heard until last Wednesday, several days after his hunger strike and failing liver had been reported. Independently, it appears, CBS News reported that a new document was “quietly dropped” into the files of Mahdi Hashi and his co-defendants, Ali Yasin Ahmed, and Mohammed Yusuf’s files.

The letter, by U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, alleges that they had substantial knowledge that al-Qaida was building a chemical weapons factory, and that they had substantial countersurveillance expertise. I have written about Lynch’s allegations in more detail elsewhere, but here it’s noteworthy that there has been no mention of their supposed familiarity with a chemical weapons program or countersurveillance expertise until now.

It’s also worth noting the timing of Lynch’s letter. It is entered into Hashi’s and the others’ files one month after the chemical gas attack in Syria, and four months since Edward Snowden’s leaked documents confirmed extensive NSA surveillance of American citizens, foreign nationals and international citizens alike. And perhaps it’s also worth noting that those revelations were met by the standard National Security response that surveillance was needed to foil the terrorists, who presumably had superior intelligence capacities.

Lynch’s letter also requests separate appearances for all three defendants on the grounds that their terrorist “proclivities” might cause death or bodily injury to others, or to themselves. Given that their SAMs probably mandate extremely restrictive conditions with negligible contact with anyone or anything, it’s unclear how exactly they could be a danger to anyone.

Last week, a Twitter account called @StatelessMahdi tweeted a picture of Hashi’s mother standing outside the US embassy in London, holding a sign that says “Free Mahdi Hashi.”  It reminds me of the pictures of Yusef Salaam’s mother who, in 1989, would appear at her teenaged son’s trial wearing a “Yusef is Innocent” T-shirt.

In Ken Burns’ recent documentary “The Central Park Five,” there is footage of Sharonne Salaam encountering jeering and laughing crowds on her way into the courtroom, wearing a T-shirt declaring her son’s innocence.  These were crowds who were convinced of New York Daily News’ headlines, naming Salaam and the 4 other black teenagers as part of a “Wolf Pack,” as marauders, animals, brutes who preyed on a young white woman, known as the Central Park Jogger. Many other newspapers across the country followed suit in sensationalizing the racial dimensions of the case. They convicted the teenagers by media, as did Mayor Edward Koch, then aspiring mayor David Dinkins, Donald Trump and others. Trump went as far as spending $85,000 to publish full-page ads in four daily New York City newspapers, demanding the return of the death penalty and more police for these “roving band of wild criminals.”

As we know today, Salaam and the other four teenagers would spend years in jail after having been railroaded into false confessions. As we also know today, they were innocent of any wrongdoing. As in Salaam’s case, the signs that Hashi was going to be profiled were there when he was a mere teenager, well before his disappearance from Somalia.

The U.S. has become a nation that zealously kidnaps men from foreign countries on the scantest suspicion of being threats to the U.S. and tortures them for indefinite amounts of time. Yes, solitary confinement is torture. Hashi and his co-defendants are three among many such men held here in the U.S. — outside of Guantánamo. Many have still not been charged.

This should not be who we are.

If Lynch’s allegations that Hashi and his co-defendants have substantial knowledge of a chemical weapons programs and are countersurveillance experts, then we need to have a speedy and open trial to see exactly how that expertise was acquired — and how the U.S. obtained that evidence. If Hashi is indeed guilty, that fact will not be established through secret interrogations or unlawful renditions. If he is guilty, that fact won’t be established by secret evidence or tortuous SAMs that eliminate his ability to have contact with the outside world.  It will only be established through a lawful prosecution, a vigorous defense, timely evidence and a transparent trial. The U.S. government’s case against Hashi can only be enhanced by treating him and his co-defendants humanely and sharing the evidence with the public. Until then, skepticism and doubts about the ethics of this nation’s counterterrorism practices will and should prevail.

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This article appeared in Salon.com today under the title: “This is counterrrorism?: The Shocking Story of Mahdi Hashi”

Statelessness, Renditions and Making Examples of Muslims: The Case of Mahdi Hashi

The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.

–Hannah Arendt (1951)

When President Obama famously signed the executive order to end torture, he did not also sign an order to end the practice of renditions that had also become popular during the Bush Era.  I suppose it is one of the many consistencies of the current Administration on which we can rely: drones, kill lists, renditions.

Perhaps that explains why we have a report of the mysterious appearance of 3 men of Somali descent in a Federal court in NY Friday morning, where they were charged with material support and arms violations in conjunction with Al-Shabaab, an Islamic group deemed a terrorist organization by the US.  A Swedish interpreter was also present.

The men are Mohamed Yusuf, Ali Yasin Ahmed and Mahdi Hashi. Of Mohamed Yusuf, I can find nothing. Ali Yasin Ahmed appears to be a Swedish resident, if not a national, who owned a travel agency in Sweden and was charged with not keeping financial records. Apparently, he sent over US $1.5m to Somalia while in Sweden.*

Hashi, 23, has been missing from his home in Somalia for over three months. Hashi was a British citizen. Hashi’s father reports that in the UK, Hashi and several others had been hounded to become informants for British intelligent agents.  Hashi refused, before moving to Somalia some time later, where he got married and had a child.

A little over 4 months ago, Hashi was informed by mail that the UK had stripped him of his citizenship for his association “with terrorist activities.” He was given 4 weeks to challenge the decision. But according to his family, he disappeared before he could challenge the British government’s decision.  Disappeared that is, until his appearance in Brooklyn last Friday morning.

As Jeremy Scahill tweeted:

Oh, you thought Obama ended renditions?

Not quite.

The FBI asserts that the 3 men were apprehended “on their way to Yemen.” According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism,

Mahdi Hashi passed through Djibouti on a number of previous occasions when visiting relatives in Somalia. It’s not known whether he made his own way to the small nation on this occasion, or was forcibly abducted and transferred to jail there.

The double-standards and arbitrary prosecutions of individuals is but par for the course for Department of Justice. But it is also interesting to ask why POTUS didn’t just kill Hashi instead of kidnapping him? It is especially interesting, given that US showed no particular interest in awarding trials to Osama bin Laden, Anwar Al-Awlaki—or his 16 year old son, Abdulrahman—before summarily killing them.

So, why suddenly render these three Somalis to the US and have them appear publicly in a NY Federal Court? If they were “accidentally” killed, there might be a small roar of protest, but the US government has stood tall in the face of much worse uproars.  Most likely, it is useful to make a public example of them to ordinary Muslim migrants who are interested in sending money to relatives or for charitable purposes, in the face of dubious restrictions.  It has been a standard practice for the Obama Administration to prosecute Muslims for charitable donations, as the family of Dr. Shakir Hamoodi and members of the Holy Land Foundation will attest.

Al-Shabaab is an Islamic militant organization that is challenging the UN-backed (Ethiopian) transitional government. It is deemed by the US government to to be a terrorist organization, and affiliated with Al-Qaeda–although this seems to be more of an aspirational association. It is also an organization toward which the Somali diaspora is sympathetic—likely because it is one of the chief organizations that distributes money for various charitable purposes in the civil-strife ridden country.

However, you will recall that the US is much less sympathetic to Somali migrants to who violate material support statutes—even for charitable purposes—than to banks who callously and openly flaunt the same statutes. Nima Ali Yusuf, a 26 year old woman who had fled Somalia as a child, was sentenced to 8 years in prison for sending $1450 for charitable purposes through Al-Shabaab. But to hear of her actions from the US Attorney General’s office, you would have thought she was a potential suicide bomber. HSBC, by contrast, agreed to “forfeit $1.26 billion and enter into ‘a deferred prosecution agreement’” for a much worse charge of money laundering and the “financing of drug cartels and groups with ties.” No criminal charges, no jail time for HSBC bankers.  The sum forfeited seems huge, but in fact it is substantially less than one month’s profits.

It is also notable that the UK stripped Hashi of citizenship, thereby rendering him stateless—immediately before he was kidnapped off the streets of Mogadishu.  So, a first world sovereign nation purposely stripped one of their citizens of complete protection and left him vulnerable to the exigencies of a first world imperial—outlaw–sovereign nation. Yes, outlaw nation: it is a nation that has a history of violating international law by constructing extrajurisdictional prisons, formulating new extrajudicial categories such as enemy aliens (lawful and unlawful) and rendering men whom they suspect of terrorism (often wrongly—remember Maher Arar? Khalid Al-Masri?) to CIA black sites and torturing them.

Did the UK know that the US wanted to render him? Is that why they stripped him of his citizenship?  It is more than likely that the UK and the US are yet again in collusion to kidnap, render, and otherwise ignore the rights of individuals whom they deem a threat to the state, or whom they want to make a “public” example.

Spare me the argument that Somalia is not a sovereign nation, which is why it wasn’t illegal to render Hashi, Yusuf, and Ahmed. Hashi was stripped of his British citizenship right before the US swooped in to render him.  As Asim Qureshi of CagePrisoners suggested on Twitter,

We believe that since the problems the UK gov has had with deportations and extraditions, it has been easier for them to remove the citizenship of individuals thus allowing them to be victims of rendition by 3rd party countries.

In light of this latest rendering, why does anyone think that Julian Assange–who has taken refuge in a stiflingly small apartment maintained by the Ecuadorian Embassy for the last 6 months and has avoided extradition by the UK to Sweden for questioning on rape charges–is paranoid to assume that it is the UK’s intention to extradite him to  the United States for torture, solitary confinement, and persecution along the lines now being meted out to Bradley Manning?

The main differences between Julian Assange and Bradley Manning are that Assange has a worldly set of resources, networks, and–now–a newly established press organization through which money for his legal defense can be channeled. Assange was able to use the first two to avoid the undoubtedly contrived extradition to Sweden by having Ecuador grant him political asylum—a necessity, since Australia does not appear to be actively intervening on his behalf against 2 outlaw first-world sovereign nations.

The main differences between Julian Assange and Mahdi Hashi include the former as well. But they also include the fact that Australia—as of yet—has not completely abrogated its sovereign responsibility over Assange, who still remains an Australian citizen. By contrast, the UK abandoned its responsibility in the sneakiest, underhanded way: by sending a letter to Hashi—somehow coincidentally timed such that he was kidnapped—rendered–with no notice given to his family–within a few days of having his citizenship rescinded.

Hashi had no time—and it is doubtful, the legal and financial capacity—to appeal to Ecuador for asylum from Somalia. Instead, he was granted the rewards of statelessness: vulnerability to the exigencies of international barbarism. Kidnapped with nary a sovereign nation to appeal to for defense on his behalf.

Although I can’t find anything about the citizenship status of Ahmed, he appears to have been a Swedish resident, if not citizen. Will Sweden intervene on Ali Yassin Ahmed’s behalf? Or will they also leave him in a similar barbaric statelessness?

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*Patrick Fahlander, BA Thesis on Swedish Perceptions of Al-Shabab (Malmo University, 2010).