By Karin Friedemann, TMO
As a little boy, Sharminâ€™s brother often reminded her to not to step on bugs. As a young man, he worked with his sister Sonali at Raksha, an Atlanta-based organization dedicated to the eradication of violence against women. The US-born Bangladeshi, who had attended a private Islamic high school in Canada, used his knowledge of classical Arabic to translate ancient Islamic texts into English for the former Tibyan Institute website. (The current website appears to be run by US government agents.) Some of the religious opinions that he translated he agreed with, and some he did not agree with. Some of the scholarly work he translated analyzed the concept of â€˜jihad.â€™
Shifa engaged in frank and sometimes wild chat discussions with his online friends. The teenagers who connected through this website discussed Freemasonry and the New World Order as well as their obligations as Muslim men.
Shifaâ€™s mother, Shirin Sadequee said her son was just â€œtalkingâ€ about jihad and exploring ideas with other youth.
Shifa Sadequeeâ€™s sister Sharmin told TMO that the online chats â€œconsisted of teenagers discussing religious and spiritual matters and opinions of scholars on various issues, political comments, wars abroad, etc.â€ The mostly South Asian teenagers â€œused cultural idioms, slang terms that a lot of second generation immigrant youths use in their conversations, but the government interpreted a lot of those phrases and conversations as â€˜codeâ€™ words.â€
â€œHe was not at all planning to join Taliban. He was living in Bangladesh in 2001, when the war in Afghanistan broke out. He emailed some websites wanting to know how he could help the Muslims in Afghanistan. Which the government interpreted as â€˜joiningâ€™ the Taliban.â€
In August 2005, Shifa was detained and questioned at Kennedy International Airport in New York on his way to Bangladesh to get married.
On April 17, 2006, twelve days after his wedding, Shifa was disappeared by Bangladeshi authorities. At a press conference in Bangladesh, his father begged for help from the public in finding his missing son. The Bangladeshi government kept silent.
The FBI brought him to New York aboard a â€œsecretâ€ CIA rendition aircraft via Alaska, stripping off his clothes and wrapping him in clear plastic wrap. FBI agent Michael Sherck requested the warrant for Shifaâ€™s arrest.
In New York, Shifa was charged with making a â€œfalse statementâ€ to the FBI but the case was later dropped. In August, 2006, the US government transferred Shifa to Atlanta Federal Penitentiary on â€œterrorismâ€ related charges. No government agencies communicated about his arrest to his father and wife in Bangladesh or to his family in Atlanta. Shifa was held for three years in solitary confinement without trial, during which time he was pressured to testify against his friends in exchange for a plea bargain. He refused.
Sharmin told TMO, â€œWhen my brother was arrested, Atlanta Muslim community leaders and members, when they went to talk with the US Attorneys to learn more about the case, the US Attorneys acknowledged that my brother and his friend did not do anything, but that they really needed to prosecute someone to let others know not to talk or do things like these youth.â€
Shifa was targeted due to online association with FBI targets including the Toronto 12. Tarek Mehanna was translating for the same online publication and they knew each other from online. There is no evidence that there was any plan to do anything illegal.
Sadequee was charged with supporting a foreign terrorist organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), a group struggling to liberate Muslim-dominated Kashmir from Indiaâ€“â€“although LET was not designated as a terrorist organization in the U.S. in 2005 and did not even exist as an organization then.
â€œâ€œThe LET… one of the terrorist organizations that theyâ€™re accusing him of beginning to intend to start becoming a part of, didnâ€™t even exist at the time and also was not registered in the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization until two weeks after Shifa was arrested,â€ stated Atlanta activist Stephanie Guilloud.
He was also accused of sending videos of tourist sites in Washington, D.C. to his online friends, who supposedly were in contact with LET. However, the government could not demonstrate a single conversation or sentence from the online chats about plans or plots for attacking these sites.
Evan Kohlmann testified as an â€œexpertâ€ witness at Sadequeeâ€™s trial. Kohlmann, who is connected with Steve Emerson and Israel lobbies, has a history of giving false testimony about Muslim political groups – at Yassin Arefâ€™s trial he absurdly claimed that Saddam Hussein, al Qaeda and Kurdish separatists were working together.
The religious debates of teenagers were taken out of context by the government to paint them as terrorists and to preemptively prosecute them. Yet the actual chats remained classified as â€œsecret evidenceâ€ and were not presented to the jury.
FBI agents testified that online chat conversations by Sadequee discussed robbing people at ATMs and selling marijuana to raise travel money. Sadequee cross examined FBI Agent James Allen regarding the conversations, pointing out that the term â€œLOLâ€ (laugh out loud) indicated that the conversations were not serious. The judge allowed Allen to interpret evidence which he, as a fact witness, should not have done.
â€œWhen ethnocentrism guides in the making and application of the law, jurors and courts/judges as products of culture and bound by culture and politics will always find certain groups â€˜guilty.â€™â€ said Sharmin.
Shifa was convicted on August 13th, 2009 and sentenced to 17 years. He was also sentenced to an additional 30 years probation, during which time he cannot access the Internet. He spent some time at the CMU in Marion, Illinois before being moved to the CMU in Terre Haute, Indiana in May 2012.
â€œWithin 24 hours of my brotherâ€™s conviction, the Director of the US Attorney Office in GA, David Nahmias, was promoted as a Judge to the Georgia Supreme Court– it was headline news in the local media the morning after my brotherâ€™s verdict. And a few years later the lead US Attorney in the case was also placed as a judge in the Fulton County System. Not sure what kind of promotion the FBI agents received,â€ Sharmin told TMO.
Community organizing played a large role in Shifaâ€™s relatively light sentencing, who was faced with up to 60 years and defended himself without help of a lawyer. 2,900 people wrote letters to the judge asking for leniency. Sharmin explains:
â€œFrom the very beginning it was the progressive non-Muslim community and the queer community who stood by us. And, communities that were active around Imam Jamil Al Aminâ€™s case and campaign were very supportive and understood how my brother was targeted for his spiritual and political beliefs and how the case against him was an attack on his First Amendment Rights because he was brown and Muslim.
â€œThis attack was not only on Shifa who is a critical thinker, or on our family, but it was also a violence on the whole community and our ability to think critically about our beliefs, practices, politics, and the way of the world. So, our community-based cross-racial and interfaith alliance helped us to create collective resiliency to respond to the violence of the War on Terror.
â€œOf course this case was in 2006, and a lot of Muslims in America then believed only the â€˜badâ€™ Muslims are under surveillance and get targeted but now we know this is not true. Things are improving, however. I think more people are realizing keeping quiet is not going to take them anywhere.â€