Professor Recounts: My Student, the “Terrorist”

Jeanne Theoharis details the extent to which our government is policing dissent under the guise of the War on Terror.

By Asraa Mustufa Apr 18, 2011

Last April, Syed Fahad Hashmi, a Pakistani American who grew up in Queens, accepted a government plea bargain on one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism. Hashmi was later sentenced to fifteen years in prison, a move that came after Hashmi spent three years in solitary confinement awaiting trial. His former political science professor Jeanne Theoharis recently wrote at the Chronicle of Higher Education about the series of shocking civil and human rights abuses, and guilt-by-association tactics Hashmi experienced at the hands of the federal government. Her essay serves to show us the extent to which our government is policing dissent and undermining constitutional rights under the guise of the War on Terror.

This, then, is the story of Guantánamo at home, of the treatment of terrorism suspects in the federal courts, the civil-rights violations happening within the United States, and the legal and political culture that allows them. I have been lecturing and writing about this case for more than three years, and what strikes me, as someone who studies civil rights, is how little we in America seem to learn from our own history.

Theoharis provides a detailed account of how after allowing a New York acquaintance briefly stay with him at his London apartment in 2004, Hashmi fell victim to relaxed and prejudicial post-9/11 standards and had his due process rights severely limited. The government was even prepared to use surveillance of his political activism from years before his arrest as evidence against him in court.

Interestingly, the man who was to provide the prosecution’s key testimony, Mohammed Junaid Babar, has been released after serving less than five years of his 70-year sentence on terrorism charges, leading some international voices to question whether he may have been an informant. Seth Freed Wessler has previously reported for Colorlines on the federal government using informants to plant terrorist schemes and serious concerns that this tactic is leading to unfounded convictions.

Theoharis offers her own take on why the federal government has been taking such severe measures against terrorism suspects who had no direct contact or dealings with terrorist organizations.

In a campaign against terrorism that requires evidence of the effectiveness of law enforcement, a record of conviction is paramount. Prosecuting alleged terrorists has significant cachet for politically aspiring U.S. attorneys, not to mention financial imperatives as various government agencies compete for money made available to fight terrorism. Under the cover of law, U.S. attorneys use prolonged solitary confinement and sensory deprivation to help produce convictions. As John McCain, a former POW, wrote, such treatment ‘crushes the spirit.’

Read more of Jeanne Theoharis’ account at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section below.