My friend Noor (above left) has beautiful eyes, but today they look sad. Noor’s grandfather passed away and she has had no way of letting her father know because the simple forms of communication all of us take for granted can’t help her reach out to her father with this news. Noor’s father, Ghassan Elashi, (at right) is a political prisoner incarcerated in a highly restrictive and secretive federal prison program called the Communications Management Unit (CMU), in which I was also incarcerated.
Ghassan is imprisoned for providing humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, a selfless deed that the Bush administration argued was analogous to indirectly supporting Hamas, by sending charity to Zakat Committees that prosecutors allege were fronts for Hamas. In the same year US AID, The Red Cross, the UN and dozens of other NGOs contributed to the same Zakat committee to which Ghassan and his charity, The Holy Land Foundation, is accused of giving aid. The US attorney’s office appeared to be selectively applying one’s freedom to give, and selectively prosecuting some charitable groups, while sliding on others. For this alleged charity, Ghassan is being denied all contact with the outside world and the news that comes from it, including the news of his father-in-law’s passing.
The Communications Management Unit is a designer penal program that focuses specifically on isolating and silencing its inmates. The demographic of the CMU‘s designees is made up of an overwhelming 64% Muslim majority and a smaller minority group of designees that have either highly politicized cases or ones with abundant press attention. This apparent racial disparity and the political nature of these prisons was the focus of a recent two-part investigation on National Public Radio entitled “Guantanamo North.” CMU inmates are isolated and silenced by administrative segregation and through heavy vetting or complete denial of contact with the outside world. To make things worse for Ghassan, he was recently stripped of what little communication he was previously able to have with his loved ones from within the CMU, and is now being denied all phone calls, all visits, and all emails.
The United States prides itself on not having any political prisoners and yet the federal CMU programs in Marion, Illinois, Terre-Haute, Indiana, and the Administrative-Maximum Unit at Carswell, Texas (an institution for female inmates) are filled with a disproportionate amount of inmates who are Muslim, and a smaller group of non-Muslims with cases related to tax protests, environmental advocacy, and animal rights activism, all of which are considered political causes. The CMU violates federal designation protocols because most of the inmates sent to the CMU have federal custody classification points congruent with that of prisoners normally designated to low and minimum security prison facilities, and yet they are housed in conditions that at times exceed that of the US’s most restrictive “super-max” prison, ADX in Florence, Colorado. (See Alia Malek’s story, Gitmo in the Heartland, in the Nation.)
When the CMU was first implemented it may have been done so illegally because it side-stepped the Administrative Procedures Act (a law that demands that federal programs such as these must first be brought to the attention of congress and made available for public comment.) Moreover the Center For Constitutional Rights has argued in Aref v. Holder that the CMU violates constitutionally mandated laws of due process because as of yet there is no administrative process to challenge an inmate’s designation to or transfer out of a CMU.
Ghassan Elashi was accused of providing humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza through his charity The Holy Land Foundation. Specifically, the government alleges that Ghassan’s charitable contributions of humanitarian aid could be deemed as indirect criminal material support of Hamas under the newly redesigned and over-broad Material Support for Terrorists statute. When Ghassan was arrested in 2004, he immediately saw a Dallas judge and was released pending trial because the judge determined that he would not be considered a threat to the community or a flight risk. Ghassan stood trial once in Dallas in 2007, was acquitted on some of the counts levied against him and the jury deadlocked on the remaining counts against him.
A mistrial was declared on the counts the jury could not render a verdict upon and only after a second trial in 2008 were Ghassan and 4 other men found guilty of allegedly giving Material Support for Palestinians.
Ghassan was later sentenced in 2009 to 65 years in federal prison.
Noor, who has often told me “I am my father’s daughter,” is currently working on a memoir about her father’s experience with the working title Eyes Like My Father. Noor’s pen is her expression and in her writing, she seeks to provide her father a voice. Noor works tirelessly to advocate for her father while he awaits appeal, and continues her father’s work towards a free and peaceful Palestine by using the mediums she knows best, visual arts, design, and the written and spoken word. As a graduate student at The New School in Manhattan, Noor has combined all of these mediums in a program called Project Palestine, an initiative by New School students to re-center Palestine in contemporary dialogue. Project Palestine’s monthly programs began in the fall and the programming continues to outdo itself each month, by bringing artists, poets, writers, scholars, and musicians to the school’s midtown NYC campus. One of the programs, Mainstreaming Palestine, consisted of a panel of artists moderated by a student, a performance by Israeli-born hip hop artist by way of Detroit named Invincible, a talk from documentarian Fida Qishta, and a reading from a young woman from Oklahoma named Pamela Olson, who shared excerpts from her new book Fast Times in Palestine, a recollection of her experiences as a press coordinator for a Palestinian presidential candidate. Hundreds of New Yorkers from all walks of life, all religions, identity, race, and orientation attended the program helping to build an open-ended community dialogue around the continued plight of Palestinians. Re-centering Palestine in contemporary dialogue is of the utmost importance to Noor and through her work with Project Palestine, she is able to connect with and reach out to additional supporters who view the issue as having been a polarizing force for far too long in the hands of extremists on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
I recently attended one of Project Palestine’s programs at The New School and Noor invited me to join her and her friends for a cup of coffee afterwards. Noor introduces me to her friends–they are Iraqi, Jewish, Korean, a wildly diverse group that transcends all boundaries of race, ethnicity, and identity. Noor wears a contemporary and stylish hijab but some of her friends who are Muslim do not. Noor is not to be pigeon-holed, nor can the group at this table be. They are a new generation of American justice seekers who are able to look past what those in power on both sides of the green line sometimes can’t and to see the hearts of the people with whom they share a table. I could only imagine what the world would look like if the microcosm at this table was projected upon the rest of society.
One of the women at the table asks me if I was in the CMU with Noor’s father. I explain that I was not, that I was released about a month before he was transferred there. She then asks me to explain what it was like. I did not know if I had it in me to fully explain and I worried about revisiting it in front of Noor, considering that this time out with friends over coffee could be a pleasant distraction away from the pain of thinking about her father. Fighting back tears felt like a rock rested in the back of my throat. In 2008 I spent the last six months of a three-year federal sentence for animal advocacy activism in the CMU in Marion, Illinois. The guards called me a “balancer,” presumably to offset the numbers in an anti-discrimination lawsuit the Bureau of Prisons is now facing. During the half a year I spent there I was told in confidence that I was, “nothing like these Muslim terrorists” and that I “would be going home shortly.” Indeed I did go home, but Ghassan Elashi and nearly sixty other men with stories similar to his have yet to come home.
That guard was gravely mistaken when he said I was “nothing like” those men. While I am not a Muslim, I am everything like those men. And just like them I felt the same uncontrollable sadness and anxiety when I could not use the phone to call home, when I could not touch my wife, or talk with my mother. Those men had stories exaggerated by prosecutors just as I did, their cases were compounded by politics and amplified by sensationalism in the press just like mine was. At the end of the day they were fathers, husbands, brothers, and friends who yearned to be free with their loved ones again as much as I did. These men showed such grace and selflessness towards each other and to strangers like me despite the glaring injustice and political repression inside the CMU.
Showing empathy towards these men and attempting to understand what it would be like to be in their shoes does not mean that one needs to have a bleeding heart. I lose sleep thinking of the men at the CMU with no way out–the ones with long sentences, the ones with administrative holds against them, the Palestinian stateless citizens who the US refuses to release on its soil and no other country is willing to accept them.
I knew of Noor for about four months before I finally reached out to her. I wondered if talking to her as someone who was where her father is now would be supportive and helpful to her. We met over coffee and I was not sure what to say when I saw her so I asked her if it was OK if I hugged her. I suddenly remembered what it felt like to sit in my cell thinking about hugging my wife again and then I thought of Ghassan. My head buzzed with possible things to talk about. I wanted to tell her everything was going to be all right yet I was certain that I didn’t know if that was true or not. I wanted to say the most encouraging things even though something malignant was gnawing away at her. She smiled at me. Her resilience was surreal.
Writing about the CMU consumes me emotionally. I pray that I can lend the best voice to Ghassan and all of these men stripped from their loved ones; it scares me to think that my voice is only one of a few who are willing to advocate on their behalf. They need more voices to demand accountability and reconciliation from our governing powers. They need you to break the silence of this secretive unit, to talk about it over dinner and to work draw it into the national discourse.
Imagine being told you can’t speak to your father. Imagine what it would feel like to not know whether or not he was well, if he was hurt, sick, or simply needed someone to talk to. Imagine living your life in constant fear of never being able to touch him again. This is how Noor feels everyday. I remember vividly how it felt to be inside the CMU and to want so desperately to hug my wife and yet I can only imagine how it must feel to be a father in that situation. Ghassan deserves to be free to be with Noor again. For many people the grief would be debilitating, but in Noor’s case we see the opposite–she shares with the world a renewed zeal to continue her father’s struggle from outside the prison gates through creative dialogue and grassroots community building. When I ask her where she derives such resilience, she simply says that she “is her father’s daughter.” Reading her father’s sentencing transcript reveals a man who was deeply patriotic, incredibly charitable and a shining example of what it means to be a strong, moral person. America should not bury Ghassan behind razor wire, concrete, and steel bars, instead we each should strive to mirror the brave example he and Noor have set for us to follow.
Stepanian is the co-founder of The Sparrow Project, a grassroots PR outfit that aims to braid popular culture, the arts, and revolutionary activism. In 2002 The Financial Times characterized SHAC as “succeeding where Karl Marx, the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Red Brigades failed.” Their actions drew the attention of Wall Street and the FBI resulting in a politically charged free speech case called the SHAC 7 trial where Stepanian and 5 others were charged and convicted as terrorists for their activism. Sentenced to 3 years in prison, Stepanian spent his last 6.5 months in a secretive federal prison program that NPR would later name ‘Guantanamo North’. Stepanian’s activism as part of the SHAC7 is the subject of a feature-length documentary due out in 2012 from Finngate Pictures. Since his release from prison Stepanian works for a publisher, consults for social justice groups, and speaks on his experiences at universities.