By STEFANIE LEVI
On May 16, a group of about 200 Somali people—mostly women—and their supporters from other communities assembled at the federal building in downtown Minneapolis. The people came to support Hawa Mohamed Hassan, 64, and Amina Farah Ali, 35, both residents of Rochester, Minn., at their sentencing hearing. The courtrooms were filled to overflowing.
An all-white jury convicted the women in October 2011 of the “crime” of volunteering to raise money for charitable organizations that support Somalis affected by ongoing wars back home. Their humanitarian actions have been framed as “providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization (FTO).” Amina Ali received a 20-year sentence and Hawa Hassan a 10-year sentence from Judge Michael J. Davis.
The women’s trial followed that of several Somali men who had their homes raided and phone lines tapped by the FBI in 2011. The men were accused of providing material aid to the “FTO” al-Shabab. Some of the men had left the U.S. to fight in Somalia; some had provided humanitarian aid, as did Amina Ali and Hawa Hassan. The defendants in the 2011 case were given sentences ranging from two to 20 years.
“Zakia,” a young Somali woman living in Minneapolis who was present at the women’s trials and sentencing hearings, spoke openly with me about the response from the Somali community to the profound miscarriage of justice.
Zakia said that the local and international Somali diaspora communities believe that neither Hassan nor Ali should have been convicted of the charges in the first place since the women did nothing to perpetrate terrorism or violence. There is the belief that Somalis are being singled out and targeted as a community because of their Islamic faith and their culture: “Is our crime being terrorists, or is our crime being Moslems?”
Hawa Hassan and Amina Ali were involved in efforts to provide clothing and money for devastated people in their homeland. Al-Shabab was the organization that they and other Somalis trusted for the purposes of collecting and distributing such aid.
Al-Shabab was formed in 2008 by people formerly allied with the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), the body that had ruled most of southern Somalia for about a six-month period in 2006. Al-Shabab gathered strength as a resistance force against the occupying Ethiopian military. With U.S. military training and monetary support, Ethiopian troops invaded southern Somalia at the end of 2006. That was when the international Somali Diaspora community came out to provide aid for their war-torn country’s people.
Much confusion ensued in the Diasporan Somali communities after the designation of al-Shabab as an FTO in 2008. Many people, including Amina Ali and Hawa Hassan, continued to organize and send aid. When the FBI raided their homes without providing search warrants, they found no “material” evidence for the case. The only “evidence” they collected was recorded telephone conversations.
An article written by Carl Bloice for Black Commentator and also posted in Global Research on May 14, 2007, provides important insight on the parallels between the U.S. involvements in Iraq and Somalia and a brief history of the precursors to the conjoint U.S.-Ethiopia invasion, occupation, and further devastation of the latter. Here are some highlights:
Since the late 1970s, tens of millions of dollars sent into Somalia by the U.S. destabilized the country and set off civil and clan warfare; the U.S. push for IMF-imposed structural readjustments led to agricultural collapse and famines. The U.S. bombed Somalia in late January 2007, as the World Social Forum was underway in Nairobi, Kenya (and bombed the country again in March 2008).
Beginning in the summer of 2006, when the UIC took control of the Somali government, the U.S. and Ethiopian governments participated in collaborative planning to invade and occupy Somalia. The U.S. gave a thumbs-up for the Ethiopian government to go against the U.S. ban on weapons purchases from North Korea; U.S. troops participated in the invasion and occupation.
Nunu Kidane, network coordinator for Priority Africa Network, summed up U.S. intentions in Africa: ‘The U.S. political and military alliance with Ethiopia—which openly violated international law in its aggression towards Somalia, is destabilizing the Horn region and begins a new shift in the way the U.S. plans to have permanent and active military presence in Africa.”
In 2007, the geopolitical reality for Somalia included a plan—placed on hold due to ongoing conflicts—for approximately two-thirds of its oil fields to be divided up by U.S. oil companies Amoco, Chevron, Conoco and Phillips. A proposal was put forward by its U.S.–backed prime minister that a new oil law be enacted to entice foreign oil companies back to Somalia.
As is clear in Zakia’s account, Somalis living here in the “land of the free” experience the Islamophobia and xenophobia experienced by their sisters and brothers in their African homeland at the hands of the U.S. military and its cronies.
Judge Davis appeared to have applied his own misperceptions and cultural biases in both his questioning and the sentences he handed down. The prosecuting attorneys were present at the sentencing hearings, but it was Judge Davis who did all the questioning. Many of his questions focused on religious themes.
An example was when the judge asked Hawa Hassan, “Would you agree that only conservative Moslem women dress the way you do?” Hassan replied, “This is what God has expected me to do. And I dress this way because Allah has ordered me to do so.”
A local attorney who observed some of the sentencing proceedings told this reporter: “I was struck with the African American judge’s air of ‘American’ cultural superiority and exceptionalism. I was surprised to hear him say things like ‘my people came here in chains’ in the same breath with which he then stated that it normally takes new immigrants three generations to fully assimilate into this great American cultural melting pot. He kept pressing for essentially an apology from anyone who may hold protective nationalistic views of their original homeland because it interferes with assimilation.
“His over the top ‘Americanism’ was too sappy and seemed designed to please the prosecutors and the press. It also seemed that he was trying to scare the mostly Somali spectators out of their ‘failure to assimilate.’
The attorney pointed out that the crime these women were charged with “comes with disproportionately onerous statutory punishments that do not equate with the gravity of the crime.” On one day, al-Shabab is not a designated foreign terrorist organization, and therefore supportive charitable activity that has any connection to the organization is not criminal. The very next day, upon an administrative determination by the Secretary of State that labels the organization an FTO, the same activity has become a criminal offense.
“The judge,” said the attorney, “has a signed photo of Nelson Mandela in his chambers. If Mandela’s African National Congress were still struggling to end apartheid in South Africa today, it would be labeled an FTO.”
As a result of the injustice served on the Somali community, many people are fearful when there’s a knock on the door or they hear the doorbell ring. They are aware that they have rights with no teeth.
Still, the community will support Amina Ali and Hawa Hassan’s appeals to the higher courts. A statement from Somali Community Members in Minnesota reads, “Amina Ali and Hawa Hassan have great hearts. These women will go beyond their ability to help others. Both are highly respected by many in the Somali community. They have touched the lives of so many of us here in the Twin Cities. … Amina Ali and Hawa Hassan are great humanitarian workers.”
There is deep respect for these two women as well as astute recognition of the lack of justice received from the court system operating in the belly of the beast.
Photo: Hawa Mohamed Hassan (left) and Amina Farah Ali leave St. Paul, Minn., federal courthouse in 2010. By Craig Lassig / AP.