Last week, Muslim activist Syed Fahad Hashmi took a government plea bargain. He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy for providing material support to al-Qaida by knowingly allowing an acquaintance to store waterproof socks, ponchos, and raincoats in his apartment. On the eve of the trial, the government dropped three charges, shaving 55 years off Hashmi’s potential sentence. But at his sentencing hearing on June 7, he will still face a maximum of 15 years. Hashmi made the decision to plead after serving three years in severe solitary confinement, and after Judge Loretta Preska approved the government’s request for an anonymous jury with extra security measures.
A superficial reading of the case suggests that justice was done. Looking more closely reveals the danger of such a conclusion. The plea bargain exposes the harrowing landscape defendants in terrorism cases confront in trying to get a fair trial, as well as the contradictions of federal terrorism policy. The conditions Hashmi faced-nearly three years in solitary confinement and severe isolation-were, according to international standards, torture. Our public conversation about torture has focused on its role and inefficacy in intelligence gathering, but not on the ways that torture and other inhumane treatment are effective means to gather convictions. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the Brennan Center have raised the alarm that prolonged solitary confinement creates pressure for plea bargains. They make it difficult for people to participate in their own defense simply by driving them mad.
Hashmi was my student. I did not agree with a number of his political beliefs; sometimes he drove me a little crazy by putting religious materials about converting to Islam in my mailbox. But we are supposed to have rights, not just privileges, in this country. We have these rights because they make us safer and freer. And to preserve them, we have to defend the rights not just of the people we agree with.