My Father Co-Founded the Largest Muslim Charity In America; Now He’s Been Branded a Terrorist

June 7, 2010

This summer, I won’t get to wrap my arms around my father’s shrunken body and inhale his familiar scent of chamomile fused with cedar. I won’t get to rest my head on his frail shoulders and listen to him breathe. I won’t get to sample the pistachios that he often shells for me. This summer, I’ll only get to see my father through a Plexiglas wall. The prison is taking public comments about this policy until Monday. I need your support.

My father Ghassan Elashi — who co-founded the Holy Land Foundation, once the largest Muslim charity in America — is serving a 65-year-sentence inside a “Communications Management Unit,” or CMU in Marion, Illinois. Inmates refer to it as “Little Guantanamo” since two-thirds of the population is Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent. The purpose of the CMU, a segregated unit within a larger prison, is to closely monitor inmates and restrict them from communicating with the outside world, including their attorneys, their families and the media. The Federal Bureau of Prisons secretly opened the Marion unit in 2008, less than two years after opening its counterpart in Terre Haute, Indiana. In doing so, they broke federal law since they did not provide any opportunity for public comment. Last month, in the wake of litigation, officials released the CMUs’ proposed rules and opened a two-month public comment period that ends today, June 7.

My father was convicted in 2008 of conspiring to send material support in the form of humanitarian aid to Palestinian charities that prosecutors alleged were fronts for Hamas, which the U.S. designated a terrorist organization in 1995. The guilty verdicts came a year after the first trial, which ended in mistrial in 2007 after jurors deliberated for 19 days and failed to reach a verdict on most counts. The results of second trial baffled defense attorneys who pointed out that USAID, Red Cross and many international NGOs donated to the same charities listed on the HLF indictment.
Before he was moved to Marion in late April, my father was held in Seagoville, Texas, 30 miles east of my family’s home, where he was essentially permitted double the phone time and several more hours of visitation per month, hours that were not obstructed by a glass enclosure. Now, he’s in a remote city in Southern Illinois, more than 100 miles from the nearest airport. My father is allowed two 15-minute phone calls a week and two four-hour visitations behind plexiglas a month, all of which are live-monitored and must be scheduled in advance.

In March 2010, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit, challenging the constitutionality of the CMUs. The New York-based legal advocacy group argued that the CMUs violate inmates’ rights to due process since they’re transferred without a hearing and without the choice to contest the move. Additionally, the CMUs interfere with the inmates’ free association since they have limited access to visits and phone calls. Furthermore, the CMUs subject inmates to cruel and unusual punishment since they’re denied physical contact with their families during visitations.

According to the Bureau of Prisons, monitoring CMU inmates is “necessary to ensure the safety, security, and orderly operation of correctional facilities, and protect the public.” But in a letter I recently received from my father, he asks, “What may they consider a threat? Maybe talking to your mother about how much she is struggling to work as a teacher and take care of your brothers and sisters. Is this considered a threat to the public? Or maybe talking to your brother and telling him, ‘Omar, Baba loves you. I love you Omar. Do you like school Omar?’ Or maybe talking to your grandmother who gives me the comfort of a mother’s prayer saying, ‘Very soon, you will be out. Just be patient my son, you have done nothing wrong.’ Is this considered a threat to the public?”

From the moment the Bush administration shut down the HLF in December 2001, the foundation has been branded as a threat. That’s despite the fact that the HLF case was authorized by the Patriot Act’s material support law, which is currently being challenged as unconstitutional in the Supreme Court. Today, let us take a stand against these secretive and unconstitutional prisons. With enough public pressure, my father would be remanded to less restrictive prison conditions. I’ll get to rest my head on his shoulders, and he’ll be frail no more.

Noor Elashi is a Creative Writing MFA student based in New York City.

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