By KAREN SCHRAUFNAGEL
MINNEAPOLIS—The show trial dubbed by our local capitalist media, “Minnesota’s Terror Trial,” ended in November with the sentencing of the nine young men (eight Somali and one Oromo) who pled to or were convicted of charges relating to alleged attempts to join the “designated foreign terrorist organization” ISIS (the Islamic State).
The pre-sentence period—which lasted for five and a half months—and sentencing were another roller coaster ride through the Criminal Injustice System for the young men, their families, and their communities. They have been on this roller coaster since the Countering Violent Extremism Program (“CVE”) came to town almost three years ago.
It could have been dubbed the “CVE Trial” if the media were more concerned with accuracy and less concerned with flash. District Attorney for Minnesota Andrew Luger has been the program’s champion and point person since its inception, bringing together Homeland Security, the FBI, and state, county, and city law enforcement agencies and bearing down on the local Somali community with enticements and entrapments designed and destined to “divide and conquer” this previously cohesive community of immigrants and first generation American citizens.
It was frequently rumored that Andrew Luger would ride the constant media coverage generated by these arrests, trials, convictions and sentences all the way to Washington, D.C. as Hillary Clinton’s Attorney General.
In this process the judge is supposed to play a mediator role between the prosecution and defense, seeking the truth and insuring some measure of “fairness,” but working-class people and oppressed communities know this system has never served us. Marx and Engels wrote in the “Communist Manifesto”: “Your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into law for all,” and nearly 170 years later, this is as true as ever.
Judge Michael J. Davis, Senior District Court Judge for Minnesota, showed remarkable hubris from start to finish. The fact that a Black, civil rights award-winning jurist has taken it upon himself to find and eliminate what he repeatedly referred to as a “terror cell” in the Somali community is surely no accident. At trial he took copious notes, and during sentencing he repeatedly referred to a “nine to 20-person cell” that is still active.
Before the final day of sentencing, when those convicted at trial were to be sentenced, the judge told the packed courtroom, “This community has to understand that there is a jihadist cell in this community—its tentacles spread ou.” (illustrating yet again that he neither understands the actual meaning of “jihad” nor comprehends his limited role in presiding over these trials and passing sentence on these particular young men).
The two young men who cooperated with the prosecution and testified against their friends, Abdullahi Yusuf and Abdirizak Warsame, were the first to be sentenced and they received the lightest sentences—time served for Yusuf and 30 months for Warsame—confirming for us all that the judge had no intention of listening even to his own hired “de-radicalization” expert, who had deemed Warsame’s risk of re-offending (meaning trying again to join a terrorist group) to be high and designated him dangerous.
The prosecution took the unusual step of testifying on behalf of these cooperators and even though the judge himself said he still believes Warsame is a “jihadist,” he closely followed the prosecution’s lead and issued a two and a half year sentence, an appropriate reward for a job well done at trial: “For the next round of sentencings, it’s a whole new ballgame. So count your blessings.”
This “next round” of sentencing was for the four young men who pled guilty but did not cooperate with the prosecution. The prosecution was asking for 15 years each for Zacharia Abdurahman, Hamza Ahmed, Hanan Musse, and Adnan Farah. The extremely prejudicial ISIS videos that played such a dramatic part in the trial were back for sentencing. The judge revealed that he watched hours and hours of these videos to prepare himself to issue sentences.
With each defendant in turn he proceeded to clear the courtroom of young children and play a gruesome video, continuously prodding the defendant: “How could you watch this? You watched video after video over and over. How could you support this organization? Are you a terrorist?”
As at trial, it was clear the men were taken as ISIS proxies, as if watching these videos was equivalent to personally committing the atrocities. “I am a terrorist” defendant after defendant declared in shame.
The defense attorneys seemed to agree that the best strategy was to accept the label of “terrorist,” argue that the experience since being arrested had enabled a transformation, and beg for mercy. It was a very demeaning process, excruciatingly painful to watch for those who care about the defendants personally or care about justice generally. And it was all the more painful because the mercy that was begged for was not granted. Abdurahman, Ahmed, Musse, and Farah will serve 10 years each.
On the final day, the young men who were convicted at trial on charges including Conspiracy to Murder outside the United States, which carries a possible life sentence, appeared one after the other in Judge Davis’ courtroom. The overflow room that had been used for the previous two days was not available, and those who were not family or media (or members of the jury, who returned to watch the sentencing) were made to wait in the lobby.
For Guled Omar’s sentencing, in an unprecedented move, no one was allowed even in the lobby. The building was cleared and we waited outside, following tweets from reporters in the courtroom to keep up with the proceedings.
While the capitalist press has implied that some defendants accepted pleas (which meant they must be guilty) while others CHOSE to go to trial (showing a “refusal to take responsibility for their actions”) and many supporters have asserted, equally problematically, that the bravest young men from the group steadfastly refused to plead to something they did not do and insisted on going to trial, both of these positions mistakenly placed power in the hands of the defendants that they never really had.
The truth is that the Criminal Injustice system in this country does not give defendants this level of self-determination. Those who pled guilty did so under the enormous pressure of multiple charges, each carrying potentially long sentences, knowing that members of their circle had already succumbed to the pressure. Some were even “cooperating” with the prosecution, knowing that no Muslim tried on such charges during this seemingly endless “War on Terror” has been found “not guilty” by a jury.
If that pressure were not enough, a Superseding Indictment was filed in October of 2015. In that indictment, filed more than six months after the bulk of the arrests in this case, the charge of Conspiracy to Commit Murder Abroad—which carries a potential life sentence—was added to the list of charges on the five young men remaining. At that point, it seemed inevitable that anyone offered the chance to plead to the lesser charge, carrying a 15-year sentence, would do so.
This was a chance that was never offered to Mohamed Farah, Abdirahman Daud, or Guled Omar. To his credit Adnan Farah held out until the trail was almost ready to begin. He was being pressured mercilessly to not only plead, but to testify against his older brother. Leverage seems to be the only reason he was ever charged and his 10-year sentence is likely punishment not for anything he actually did but for how long he held out against the full power of the US government.
As for the elder Farah, Daud, and Omar, the prosecution had decided these young men were going on trial for their lives. At the end of a deeply flawed trial, the three were found guilty by a jury of the prosecution’s peers.
The prosecution was seeking 30 years each for Mohamed Farah and Abdirahman Daud, and 40 years for Guled Omar, the one they decided was the ringleader of the alleged conspiracy.
Those who see a different kind of conspiracy afoot would point out that Guled was one of the first people the FBI approached when CVE came to town. They wanted him to work with them, spying on his friends. He refused over and over again. So the FBI decided he was dangerous and drew a target on his back. It is possible that Guled, like Adnan, was punished not for what he actually did, but for what he would NOT do—for refusing to help the government send his friends to jail.
Mohamed Farah was the first to appear. He was made to watch the graphic ISIS video that ends with the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot. Had Mohamed Farah set a Jordanian pilot on fire? It did not matter. The judge sentenced the 22-year-old to 30 years.
The next to appear was Abdirahman Daud, and the same public shaming that we had become so familiar with took place. This time the judge seemed to engage in genuine dialog with the defendant. He wanted Daud to know that he doesn’t hate Islam, that he will challenge anyone who claims Islam is a dirty religion. The rapport melted away as the judge passively read the sentence—30 years.
And finally, it was time to sentence Guled Omar. “Your brother is in Somalia fighting with Al-Shabaab. You have another brother who has gotten in trouble as a result of your case,” the Judge declared, again showing an uncanny inability to focus on what the young men were found guilty of by the jury. The prosecutor called him “irredeemable,” but the judge seemed more concerned with his charisma. “You’re charismatic, and that’s why you are being locked up for the period that you are.” The 21-year-old received a 35-year sentence.
Abdirahman’s mother commented to me that it almost felt like there was no Judge in this case, just the defendant, her boy, against the entire government. No mediator between them, just a government mouthpiece. It was clear from the start and throughout that this prosecution was political in nature. Now it falls on all of us to stand by these young men and their families through their harsh sentences. No Justice, Just US.
Photo: Farhiyo Mohamed, right, the mother of defendant Abdirahman Daud, and a second woman emerge in tears from the federal courthouse in Minneapolis after the verdict was delivered in the ISIL trial. Jim Gerhz / Minneapolis Star Tribune