Chamchamal, a Kurdish region in northern Iraq – For Yassin M Aref, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 threats is a sad reminder of the lost 15 years spent in American prisons.
Aref, 51, a Kurdish father and a former Muslim leader in Masjid As-Salam in Albany, New York’s capital, was arrested in 2007 on charges of conspiracy to commit “assault” by the FBI. He was accused of aiding and abetting “terrorism” based on “secret” evidence.
His case was criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union and others who opposed anti-terrorism policies after 9/11 in the United States.
Aref is a survivor of Islamophobia and insults following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that killed at least 3,000 people, which were later used as deception by George W Bush’s forces to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.
As the world celebrates 20 years, this year will be special since the US and military forces left Afghanistan and are expected to leave Iraq by the end of this year – to end “a terrible world war“.
Aref was deported from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq in 2019 after his release. Al Jazeera spoke to Aref in his small apartment in Chamchamal province in the Garmian region, west of Sulaimaniyah province, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Aref and his wife, Zuhur, live together while their four children, two boys and two girls, are studying in the US.
On July 2 he published his memoirs in Kurdish. The book is over 1,000 pages long and includes much of his imprisonment and life in prison. Son of Mountains is an English version of the manuscript published in the US in 2008.
“I was 34 when I was arrested and at the age of 49 I was released from prison. During the 15 years I was in prison, I lost all my goals in life, including completing my PhD and building myself morally and financially, “Aref said.
Aref was hired as the leader of the Masjid As-Salam one year after his arrival in the US. As an imam, he took part in several political protests against the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“The FBI has falsely accused me of being convicted … In the courts, there was no clear evidence against me,” Aref said. “The intelligence of the United States has not been able to arrest me because of my politics or my actions. Instead, the FBI has threatened to arrest me on charges of conspiracy.”
In June 2003, U.S. forces discovered Aref’s name, Albany’s address, and telephone number in a Kurdish diary during a raid on an enemy camp in Rawah, Iraq. This prompted the FBI to conduct a follow-up investigation.
“Initially the FBI said the booklet contained ‘adult’ next to my name, but I refused and when the judge asked the government to provide a copy of the document, the FBI admitted that there was a misinterpretation,” Aref said.
“The word in question was kak – meaning brother and is used as a tribute to the Kurdish people – and does not mean a leader.”
Aref said Bush’s superiors had intensified their political efforts when Deputy Attorney General James B Comey at a press conference in Washington, DC, announced his arrest, “We have big fish.”
Aref said the FBI had encouraged a man who had been in a long prison sentence and deported because of fraud to reach his friend, Mohammed Mosharref Hossain – a US citizen from Bangladesh and a pizza shop owner in Albany.
The well-known man, Malik, secretly recorded his conversations with both men. He offered a loan of $ 50,000 to Hossain and told him to make money by selling a shoulder strap.
A U.S. Supreme Court judge in Albany found Aref and Hossain guilty in 2006 of embezzlement and aiding and abetting terrorism, and sentenced them to 15 years in prison.
“I never knew about terrorism or terrorism or the bombing or bombing. I knew how much flour I made pizza, “Hossain told the judge after the trial.
Aref spent about two and a half years in solitary confinement and several years in a high-security camp in Terre Haute, Indiana, is called “Little Gitmo“.
“In Terre Haute, I have been tortured … and this is against US law. Being so far away, my relatives and children cannot come to see me. Even family visits hurt me,” Aref said.
“I was not allowed to hug or kiss my children. We just phoned on both sides of a black plastic window. He used every means at his disposal to confuse the mind. ”
Aref says he hopes the “secret” evidence used by the FBI will be released sometime to prove his innocence.
“The injustices I have experienced in the US have washed away my feelings for the United States as a democracy and a human right,” he said.
“Since 9/11, the US has been constantly on the verge of promoting democracy, human rights…
‘Great Fear of Muslims’
Aref’s attorney Kathy Manley also said there was no evidence against him.
“Yassin was tortured after 9/11 Islamophobia … He was convicted for fear of Islam and because the judge told the judges that the FBI had reasons to arrest him,” Manley told Al Jazeera in an email.
“This took the cultural evidence that we were not allowed to see, and later we found out that it was false. His case was very high and was used by Bush’s officials in various ways … These cases are politically motivated,” he said.
Ben Friedman, director general of Washington, DC of Defense Defense Priorities, told Al Jazeera via Twitter: “US Islamophobia has escalated since September 11. partners and assistance in war, immigration restrictions and other issues. ”
Surprisingly, Aref said he was not angry with the United States despite being in trouble.
“Ever since I arrived in the Kurdistan region, I have been the leader of the US,” he said. “I believe that in America there are a lot of people who believe that most people believe in religion, but no doubt compared to the time I was arrested things have changed and the environment is much better.”