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It’s been 10 years since the jury at the district court in Tampa, Florida, returned without a single guilty verdict at the end of my six-month US trial. Despite the legal victory, the ordeal that my family and I had to endure for many years was difficult and stressful. But since 9/11, the victims of hundreds of other political trials in the US have not been as fortunate.
So let me be very direct and frank. Nothing short of the very survival of everyday Americans as free people living in an open and democratic society is at stake. Today, courageous Americans alarmed by the government’s overreach are at the forefront of the fight to reclaim the foundations and principles that established this nation. But they need to be united and organised by forming and supporting institutions that fight back against the forces of ignorance, intolerance and exclusion.
The current anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim environment that feeds Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism is threatening the very nature of free societies and democratic governments. Since 9/11, America has been transforming slowly but surely into a surveillance and security state. If that trend is not reversed then anyone – not just the American Muslim community – could be threatened, and people will no longer be able to claim to be fully free.
More than half a century ago George Orwell described such a state in his novel 1984. In such a society, fear of the government becomes the new normal. People are then acculturated to submit to a new vocabulary and regulated speech: war is peace; slavery is freedom; ignorance is strength. In such an environment, where society is dominated by fear, people start conforming to every behaviour dictated by the government.
So when a daughter heard her father criticise Big Brother in his dream, she reported him to the authorities. He was immediately arrested, tried, convicted and sent to prison. In the novel, Orwell describes how the father was grateful to his daughter for reporting him before acting out his dream so that he could be rehabilitated in time.
But fiction no more.
During my own trial, one piece of evidence used against me consisted of a phone call between two co-defendants where one recounted to the other a conversation he had with me in his dream. It was reminiscent of the thought crime in Orwell’s novel.
Indeed, much of the government’s evidence presented to the jury during my six-month trial comprised of speeches I delivered, lectures I presented, articles I wrote, magazines I edited, books I owned, conferences I convened, rallies I attended, interviews I gave, news I heard, and websites I never even accessed.
But not everyone is as fortunate. Today, Dr Ali Al-Timimi is serving a life sentence for supposedly giving a religious fatwa. Tarek Mehanna is serving 17 years for translating a document. Mufid Abdelqader is serving 20 years for singing songs for Palestine. Ghassan Elashi and Shukri Abu-Baker are serving 65 years each for feeding and clothing hungry Palestinian children, while Dr Rafil Dhafir is serving 22 years for feeding Iraqi children.
Ahmad Abu Ali is serving life because of a false confession obtained under torture. Dr Aafia Siddqui was sentenced to 86 years for an incident in which she was the victim who was shot and nearly killed. Ziyad Yaghi is serving 32 years in a manufactured conspiracy case because he travelled overseas in search of a wife. Imam Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain are serving 15 years in another conspiracy where the script was written, planned, financed, executed and directed by the FBI. The examples are far too many to recount.
The bottom line is this. Innocent people are suffering and their families are tormented because of their beliefs, opinions, associations and advocacy – all First Amendment protected activities.
During my five and a half years in prison, I had to endure 41 straight months in solitary confinement, most of it before and during the trial. The conditions of confinement were not unlike those at Guantanamo Bay, designed to break individuals down psychologically: isolation, abusive guards, little or no communication with family and friends, psychological torture, and limited opportunity to review the government’s evidence, just to name a few.
Treated worse than criminals
Almost all victims of government prosecutions are subjected to such inhumane treatment. In fact, serial murderers and rapists have more rights in the prison system than American Muslim defendants and other indicted political activists entitled to the presumption of innocence under the law.
Even after sentencing, far too many are placed in solitary confinement or in the so-called Communication Management Units (CMUs), special prisons designed to deny Muslim prisoners many rights afforded to hardcore convicted criminals.
But truly free people are not intimidated by scare tactics. On the contrary, they exhibit a sense of fairness, display respect for the freedom of others, and are willing to stand up and defend their highest ideals. That’s the essence of a democratic society, where the people are unwilling to submit to fear or be intimidated or cowed by abusive authority and its tyrannical tactics.
So here is the question: Do Americans want to defend their rights and remain a free people? Or do they want to be scared and suppressed? Remember, “All tyranny needs in order to rule the day is for people of good conscience to remain silent or do nothing.”
To protect civil freedoms is to speak more not less, to challenge authority run amok, to speak truth to power that too often substitutes fear for rational thinking in order to control and dictate.
But also too often the vulnerable members of society are too traumatised to speak on their own behalf or defend their rights. So it becomes incumbent upon people of conscience, our collective duty, our solemn responsibility, to champion their cause, to educate and inform the masses. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of liberty.
Who speaks truth to power?
But that only comes through freeing ourselves from fear and by exercising our right to speak, to freely express ourselves, to protest, to object, to lobby, to mobilise, to act; in short, to become a free citizen and a dignified human being. What distinguished great leaders like Mahatma Ghandi, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela was their willingness to speak truth to power, and if need be, pay the price for it.
During my time in prison I wondered who was speaking on behalf of those who were wrongly targeted by the government. Who was supporting their families, counselling the wives, wiping the mothers’ tears, or hugging their children?
When I was released under house arrest in 2008, I waited for two years hoping that some of the existing organisations would step up and carry the torch of defending the oppressed, be the beacon of freedom, or become the voice of the voiceless. But the wait was in vain.
Eventually, in August 2010, while still under house arrest, I invited over 20 organisations and activists so they could establish an organisation that could fulfill this mission, which no other organisation was willing to advocate. In October 2010, the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF) was founded. It is one of the very few organisations in America willing to tackle these difficult issues that far too many leaders and organisations have been ignoring.
For the past five years many remarkable and conscientious human rights and civil liberties activists have been educating policymakers and the media, raising awareness within communities, defending our legal rights, and reaching out to the families of victims. Now NCPCF is celebrating its fifth anniversary.
So on behalf of all victims of injustice I ask you during this holiday season to support this important cause, NCPCF, and similar organisations. Please show kindness and generosity, if not for the victims and their suffering families, then for the future of your children.
This is our calling, our mission, our challenge. History will indeed judge us based on our response. I urge you to open your hearts and be generous.
This article originally appeared on Middle East Eye.