Chamchamal, Kurdish region in northern Iraq For Yassin M Aref, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is a sad reminder of 15 lost years in American prisons.
Aref (51), a Kurdish man and former mosque leader in the Masjid As-Salam in Albany, the capital of the state of New York, was arrested in 2007 on a conspiracy charge filed by the FBI in a “stabbing operation”. He is accused of aiding ‘terrorism’ on the basis of ‘secret’ evidence.
His case has been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics of post-9/11 anti-terrorism policies in the United States.
Aref is a living victim of Islamophobia and hate speech after the September 11, 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, which were later used by the George W. Bush administration as a pretext for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.
As the world commemorates the 20th anniversary, this year is unique as the US and coalition forces withdrew from Afghanistan and are expected to leave Iraq by the end of this year, bringing an end to the “global war on terror“.
Aref was deported to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq in 2019 after his release. Al Jazeera spoke to Aref in his small house in the Chamchamal district of the Garmian region, west of Sulaimaniyah province, in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Aref and his wife, Zuhur, live together while their four children, two boys and two girls, study in the US.
On July 2, he publishes his memoirs in Kurdish. The book is over 1,000 pages long and contains details of his arrest and his life sentence. Son of Mountains is his English version of the memoir published in 2008 in the USA.
‘I was 34 years old when I was arrested and at 49 I left prison. During the 15 years I was in prison, I lost all my goals in life, including completing my PhD and building myself culturally and financially, ”Aref said.
Aref was appointed leader of Masjid As-Salam a year after his arrival in the United States. As an imam, he took part in several campaigns against the war to protest the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“The FBI has made a point of accusing me … In court proceedings there has been no real evidence against me,” Aref said. “The US intelligence could not arrest me because of my political views or civilian activities, but rather the FBI stabbed me to arrest me on conspiracy charges.
In June 2003, the U.S. military found Aref’s name, Albany address, and phone number in a notebook written in Kurdish while attacking a hostile camp in Rawah, Iraq. This led to the FBI launching an investigation targeting him.
“The FBI initially claimed that the notebook contained ‘commander’ next to my name, but I denied it and when a judge ordered the government to provide the sheet, the FBI acknowledged that there was a mistranslation,” he said. Aref said.
‘The word in question was shit – which means brother and is used as a general term of respect in Kurdish – and it does not mean commander.
Aref said the Bush administration had stepped up its case for political gain when Deputy Attorney General James B Comey announced at a news conference in Washington, DC, that he would be arrested by saying, “We have the big fish.”
Aref said the FBI persuaded an informant who had been sentenced to a long prison term and deportation for fraud to visit him through his friend, Mohammed Mosharref Hossain – a U.S. citizen originally from Bangladesh and owner of a pizza shop in Albany .
The informant, known as Malik, secretly recorded his conversations with both men. He offered to lend $ 50,000 to Hossain and told him to launder money from the sale of a shoulder-fired missile.
A jury in the U.S. District Court in Albany found Aref and Hossain guilty in 2006 of money laundering and supporting terrorism, which sentenced both men to 15 years in prison.
“I did not know about terrorism or terrorists or shootings or bombings. “I knew how many kilograms of flour I made for pizza,” Hossain told the judge after he was sentenced.
Aref spent almost two and a half years in solitary confinement and a few years at a maximum security facility in Terre Haute, Indiana, nicknamed “Klein Gitmo“.
‘At Terre Haute I’m subjected to psychological torture … and that’s against American laws. Because I was too far away, my family and children could barely visit me. Even the family visits were a torture for me, “Aref said.
“I am not allowed to hug or kiss my children. We only had a call on two sides of a thick plastic window. They used every technique to make you psychologically collapse. ”
Aref said he hopes the ‘secret’ evidence used by the FBI will be released at some point so he can prove his innocence.
“The injustice I have suffered in the United States has washed away my view of the United States as a place for democracy and human rights,” he said.
‘Since 9/11, the USA has been constantly withdrawing in the promotion of democracy, human rights … The USA has gone morally bankrupt. In the aftermath of September 11, I fell victim to wrong policies by Bush and the Islamophobia sentiments.
‘Common fear of Muslims’
Kathy Manley, Aref’s lawyer, also said there was no serious evidence against him.
“Yassin was definitely a victim of Islamophobia after 9/11 … He was convicted out of general fear of Muslims and because the judge told the jury, the FBI has good reasons to target him,” Manley said in ‘ said an email to Al Jazeera.
‘It was based on classified evidence that we are not allowed to see, and later it was found to be false. “His case was highly regarded and used in various ways by the Bush administration … These cases are usually used for political purposes,” she said.
Ben Friedman, policy director of Washington, DC, based defense priorities, told Al Jazeera via Twitter: “American Islamophobia has grown by leaps and bounds after 9/11 and has remained at a high level as a result of politicians’ efforts, especially Trump say, to use these fears to view Muslims as a threatening other and to gain support for wars, immigration restrictions and other policies. ”
Remarkably, Aref said that despite his ordeal, he is not angry with the US.
“Since my arrival in the Kurdistan region, I have become a US defender,” he said. ‘I do believe that there is still some Islamophobia in the USA, but compared to the time of my arrest, the situation has undoubtedly changed and the environment is much better.