This story was originally published by NYC in Focus on December 9, 2009.
Their numbers weren’t as large as they used to be, but supporters still showed up for Syed Fahad Hashmi. They were in U.S. District Court in Manhattan on November 12 when Judge Loretta Preska struck her gavel and brought the pre-trial hearing to a close. Her ruling: all motions denied.
Hashmi, the defendant, stood and turned to see family and friends sitting just a few feet behind him. His eyes lit up, and he smiled. The diverse group of supporters beamed back despite their disappointment that Preska had denied the motions they thought would give 29-year-old Hashmi a fair trial.
Hashmi, an American citizen, is charged with providing material and financial support to Al Qaeda. He allegedly provided that support through an acquaintance, Junaid Babar, who stayed at Hashmi’s London flat for two weeks in 2004. The U.S. government believes Hashmi loaned Babar money for the purchase of an airplane ticket to Pakistan. During his stay at Hashmi’s flat, Babar stashed what the U.S. government has called military gear; waterproof socks, raincoats and ponchos. Babar has confessed that he delivered this military gear to a high-ranking Al Qaeda official in Pakistan. Hashmi claims he was not aware of Babar’s involvement with Al Qaeda and has pleaded not guilty.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Hashmi moved with his family to Flushing, New York when he was three years old. By the time he graduated from Brooklyn College with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science, he had become an American citizen. In 2003, Hashmi traveled to England to pursue a master’s degree in international relations at the London Metropolitan University. Three years later, the U.S. government had issued a warrant for his arrest and the British police took Hashmi into custody at Heathrow airport. He was kept in Belmarsh prison in England for 11 months before being extradited to the U.S.
Since his extradition, Hashmi has been kept in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Manhattan under the Special Administrative Measures (SAM) imposed by the U.S. Attorney General. These regulations have authorized the Bureau of Prisons to keep an inmate in solitary confinement 23 hours a day and to monitor all communication between the inmate and his or her attorney. They have also restricted visitation to one and a half hours every other week. Only Hashmi’s immediate family members or his attorney can visit him. He is allowed to write one letter, no longer than three pages, to a single-family member once a week, and he can only have access to filtered news clippings that are at least 30 days old.
Jeanne Theoharis, associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College, who once taught Hashmi and now is one of the supporters spearheading the “Free Fahad” campaign, remembers him as an intelligent and passionate student activist. She says Hashmi was critical of US foreign and domestic policy in the War on Terror. To family members and friends, Hashmi was a devout Muslim who had never gotten into any kind of trouble.
One of Hashmi’s attorneys, Sean Maher, had argued that Hashmi’s past associations with a radical Islamist organization should not be admissible as evidence in the upcoming trial. The organization, Al Muhajiroun, was created in 1996 in the U.K. and was led by the notorious Sheikh Omar Mohemmed Bakri, according to the Center for Policing Terrorism at the Manhattan Insititute. The group disbanded in 2004, and Maher argued that Hashmi had only briefly belonged to the organization and that he had left it by the time Babar came to stay in his flat in London and that the information could prejudice the jury.
In the courtroom, Hashmi’s supporters no longer fill all the benches. After nearly three years of imprisonment, the numbers of young and old, Asian and American, Muslims and non-Muslims who attend Hashmi’s court proceedings have decreased.
Only seconds after the judge ruled, security marshals from the Metropolitan Correctional Center blocked Hashmi’s view and guided him out of the courtroom. In the third row of pew-style benches, Hashmi’s mother suppressed a sob.
After the hearing, Hashmi’s supporters shuffled out of the courtroom and reassembled across the street under a cold November sky. Theoharis addressed the small group standing in the rain and implored them to spread the word of Hashmi’s trial so that they can pack the courtroom for his next appearance. She told them how important it is for Hashmi to see all of them vouching for him. “For Fahad’s sake,” she added before the group broke up and everyone went their separate ways.
Hashmi’s trial is scheduled to begin on January 6 in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.