WOT Witchhunt in Lackawanna

Revolutionary Worker #1197, May 4, 2003, posted at rwor.org

It was Friday night, September 13, 2002, when police and FBI agents hit the streets of Lackawanna, a suburb of Buffalo, New York.

Blocks were sealed off as heavily armed police moved out to make arrests, targeting five young men- -Yahya Goba, 25; Sahim Alwan, 29; Yasein Taher, 24; Faysal Galab, 25; and Shafal Mosed, 24. All were U.S. citizens of Yemeni descent. Four were born in the U.S., the other was a naturalized citizen.

One other man in Lackawanna, Mukhtar al-Barkir, 22, had been arrested three days before, after his wedding in the Middle Eastern country of Bahrain. According to his lawyer he was beaten after being arrested and the FBI interrogated him in jail.

National headlines the next day claimed the men were what the justice department called a "sleeper cell" of terrorists supposedly blending into U.S. society until they were called into action--a convenient charge given the men were not accused of any terrorist acts, and weren't even accused of plotting anything.

The main charge made against the "Lackawanna 6" is that they attended a training camp in Afghanistan run by al-Qaida in spring/summer of 2001.

These high-profile arrests played a role in justifying higher levels of repression. They coincided with the 9/11 anniversary "orange alert" and the push for war in Iraq. Bush, in his January State of the Union speech, referred to the government's success in breaking up "al-Qaida cells in Hamburg, Milan, Madrid, London, Paris, as well as Buffalo, New York."

In such an environment the government effectively convicted the men by the act of accusing them. And now the system is preparing to send them to prison for years.

Targeting Lackawanna

Not only are six young men about to have precious years taken from them, but an entire community is getting a harsh dose of the intense repression that's been instituted since September 11, 2001.

Lackawanna is a city of 19,000 in the rust belt of upstate New York. Bethlehem Steel used to be the engine that attracted immigrant proletarians to this town on the western edge of the state, but Beth Steel is now closed.

Within Lackawanna there are about 3,500 Yemeni people. And many in this community, like everyone else, now find themselves struggling to get by. Most of the men arrested grew up in Lackawanna, attended the same high school, played soccer together, and were part of the local hip hop scene. According to friends and family they'd been somewhat aimless since graduating and were trying to reconnect with the Islamic religion. That is what moved them to travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan in mid-2001.

By some reports, it seems their trip didn't really resonate. One Yemeni woman told the Buffalo News , "[Shafal] Mosed was supposed to stay for four months but came back early. I saw him on the street and I was like, `What are you doing back here already?' He said to me, `I missed my pizza, my football, my wife and my son.' And he hated the weather there," she said.

This trip put the men on the government's list of terrorist suspects. And authorities are now targeting the entire Yemeni community in Lackawanna--treating everyone with suspicion.

Jim Holston, a professor at SUNY Buffalo, posted a report on the Buffalo Report website describing how "Since September, the Joint Terrorism Task Force of Western New York has subjected the Yemeni-American community in Lackawanna to ongoing harassment. FBI and local law enforcement have conducted surveillance by police cruiser and helicopter fly-overs. They have broken down doors, confiscated property, and interrogated children, encouraging them to inform against their parents and neighbors."

What look like surveillance cameras have been mounted on utility poles in key places in the neighborhood--two near the mosque, another by an Arab-owned gas station, and another across from the Lackawanna High School. When the Buffalo News asked the city police chief about this he said, "We didn't put it there, and I don't know who did." The local FBI spokesman "declined to comment when asked if the camera belongs to the terrorism task force."

On December 18, 2002 federal authorities arrested Mohammed Albanna, president of the American Muslim Council of Western New York. Albanna was arrested along with two relatives for sending money to Yemen. Albanna had spoken out in defense of the "Lackawanna 6" and had been organizing against the targeting of the community. According to the Buffalo Report posting, "Nobody has offered any evidence to suggest that Albanna was doing anything other than helping his fellow Yemeni-Americans send money home to impoverished Yemeni relatives. He was following the age-old tradition known as `hawala,' which eases money transfers to communities lacking established banking facilities."

The government's message was clear: if you speak up, you too will end up in trouble.

Murder and LegalStrong-Arming

What is happening in Lackawanna is a stark example of the cumulative coercive effects of measures put in place since 9/11.

The government claims the six young men were recruited by another Yemeni from Lackawanna named Kamal Derwish. Derwish, however, was not indicted. Instead, in November 2002 he was one of six men driving in Yemen when an unmanned CIA Predator aircraft fired a Hellfire missile into the car they were in, killing everyone.

Back in New York, the government coerced four of the men to plead guilty to the "lesser" felony charges of aiding a terrorist organization, which carries a 10-year sentence.

According to defense attorneys, the government hinted that if the men don't take the deal they could be hit with more serious charges like treason, which carries the death penalty, or they could be declared "enemy combatants," which would allow the government to put the men in a military prison without a jury trial. Professor David D. Cole of the Georgetown University Law Center told the Buffalo News , "The government can pick up anybody in the country and label them an enemy combatant. The fact that they can threaten to do this puts a huge sword over the heads of these (Lackawanna) defendants."

Underneath such strong-arming is the fact that the government does not have a terrorism case. At the time of the arrest FBI head Mueller said, "We do not fully know the intention of those who are charged." And Buffalo DA Edgar C. NeMoyer told the Buffalo News , "It seems like the government is trying very hard to keep any of these cases from going to trial."

The Challenge

First they came for the Communists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant
Then they came for me, but by that time, no one was left to speak up.

-- Pastor Martin Niemoeller, Nazi Germany

There have been demonstrations in support of the Lackawanna 6. And people in the community offered to put up their houses, businesses and personal property to help get the men out on bail- -before the judge all but ruled that out that as a possibility.

People in the Yemeni community in Lackawanna are upset and angry at the way the "Lackawanna 6" have been targeted, threatened, railroaded and hit with 10 years of prison--for doing nothing. The Buffalo News quoted one man, Arwa Oman, "I'll be honest. When I first heard they were arrested, I didn't believe it. And then when they took the plea deals, I cried. I thought, `God, these men are so young.' In my heart I thought, `10 years, that's a long time.' "

What is happening in Lackawanna is a challenge to justice-minded people of all nationalities, and to all those who believe a better world is possible. Serious charges are made with no real evidence. A whole community with roots and ties in a country in the Middle East is cast under a shadow of racist suspicion. The government wields harsh repressive measures and legal bullying to railroad six young men into prison. And now, by extracting "admissions" the government will use this as further justification for broadening its repressive net.

All this presents a real challenge for the people--to create an atmosphere of opposition, defiance and resistance, with the determination to stop this whole repressive onslaught.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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