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For some defendants, an American gulag

Published March 14, 2004

In Bernard Malamud's masterpiece The Fixer, inmate Yakov Bok was subjected to psychological torture in a Soviet gulag through the humiliations of constant shackling and repeated strip searches.

The story I read in middle school comes back to me as I learn more about the abusive and psychologically damaging treatment of Dr. Sami Al-Arian, a former professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida, who is in federal prison on terrorism-related charges.

Denied bail and his right to a speedy trial, Al-Arian is being held in the Special Housing Unit of the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County. The SHU is the prison's disciplinary ward, typically reserved for uncontrollable prisoners who have attacked guards or other inmates.

Al-Arian shares a 7-by-13-foot cell with co-defendant Sameeh Hammoudeh. The amount of room they have for both of them violates the American Correctional Association guidelines for a single prisoner. Here, they are warehoused for 23 hours a day, let out only for an hour of recreation five times a week. But even then they are denied daylight. Their recreation cell is a cage adjacent to the cellblock which is surrounded by a high wall and an opaque weather covering.

All done for their own safety, says the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

In a display of petty cruelty, whenever Al-Arian has a meeting with his lawyers, the guards refuse to carry his legal documents. He is forced to walk bent over, with his hands shackled behind him, balancing the paperwork on his back. "Like an animal," says Linda Moreno, one of his lawyers. After the meeting he is strip searched - sometimes with other prisoners and guards watching.

But this is actually a step up. He used to be strip searched after every non-contact visit from family, too. Finally, a federal magistrate put a stop to it.

His privations and indignities have even caught the attention of Amnesty International. In July, the group wrote a letter to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons calling the manner of Al-Arian's confinement "unnecessarily punitive," charging that the "deprivations imposed on Dr. Al-Arian are inconsistent with international standards and treaties."

I appreciate that Al-Arian is decidedly unsympathetic. The 50-count indictment accuses him of heading the U.S. operations of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group responsible for murdering more than 100 people in Israel and its territories. But right now Al-Arian is a pretrial detainee, presumed innocent, and he is being subjected to conditions of confinement so harsh and unjustified that there must be an ulterior motive. All signs point to a purposeful strategy by the Justice Department to break him down psychologically and make it difficult if not impossible for him to assist in his own defense.

This may help the government obtain a conviction, but it will inevitably prove counterproductive in advancing our national security interests. Al-Arian is a well-known Muslim figure and his treatment by our criminal justice system will be watched around the world - and the Muslim world in particular. What is being done to him now is unworthy of our system; and lays bare a hypocrisy: We preach great principles of justice, fair-dealing and respect for human dignity to Arab nations yet are willing to make them a pick-and-choose proposition over here.

The bulk of the government's case against Al-Arian and his co-defendants is contained in more than 20,000 hours of audio recordings, the result of several years worth of wiretapped phone conversations. Al-Arian, like any other defendant, was granted the right to listen to this evidence in order to participate in his own defense. But the prison has made a mockery of this, persistently delaying his efforts by failing to maintain his recording equipment in working order.

Earlier this month Al-Arian's cell was raided by guards wearing masks covering their faces. His attorney claims that hundreds of pages of the notes he prepared on his case were confiscated. The prison failed to respond to my inquiries on this episode.

There is bias operating here. This is the same sort of mistreatment faced by hundreds of immigrants swept up into detention facilities after 9/11. The Bush administration has determined that a different set of rules should apply to anyone suspected of aiding terrorism.

When I asked Andrew Patel, one of the attorneys for Jose Padilla, the American who is being held without charge as a potential terrorist, about the confinement conditions for his client, he said it's a taboo subject. Patel said he was told not to discuss anything regarding conditions with Padilla.

The ban reminded me of a passage in The Fixer when Bok is visited by his wife. "They forbade me to ask you any questions about your conditions in this prison," she lamented.

The thing all these men, Al-Arian, Hammoudeh, Padilla and Bok, have in common is that they suffered in confinement without having been convicted of any crime. Like the old Soviet system, for certain suspects, we punish first and do the trial later.
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