NEW YORK (Reuters) - If the men accused of plotting the September 11 attacks wonder what conditions they might face when they are moved to New York from Guantanamo Bay for trial, they can expect solitary confinement, 23-hour-a-day lockdowns, constant video surveillance and almost no visitors.
That has been the experience in New York of one American student, Syed Fahad Hashmi, accused of minor acts of aiding al Qaeda. Those conditions have drawn criticism from human rights advocates who protest outside the Manhattan jail where Hashmi has spent 2-1/2 years in solitary confinement awaiting trial.
Outside the jail housing Hashmi, just a hew hundred yards (meters) from the site of the 9/11 attacks known as Ground Zero, protesters carry banners reading “No Guantanamos at Home or Abroad” and say the case shows a lack of rights for terrorism defendants.
Such confinement for some suspects charged under anti-terrorism laws are called special administrative measures, or SAMs. The U.S. Justice Department says SAMs — which need approval of the U.S. Attorney General — are needed to prevent violence and that Hashmi was threatening British authorities when he was arrested.
The U.S. Justice Department is considering moving dozens of cases from Guantanamo Bay military prison to the United States for trials in civilian courts. They may also face SAMs, designed to block communications from dangerous inmates.
NBC reported on Tuesday that a grand jury in New York is hearing evidence against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-professed mastermind of the September 11 attacks in 2001, and four accused accomplices. A grand jury decides whether the evidence presented is strong enough to bring charges.
“I would not be surprised if there are SAMs isolating these guys as they are much higher profile cases than the Hashmi case,” said Karen Greenberg, executive director for the Center on Law and Security. “There are real (due process) concerns about the Hashmi case.”
The past 2-1/2 years in solitary confinement for Hashmi, a Pakistani-born American student, is one of the longest periods in America that a suspect has ever been held in isolation before trial. Hashmi is accused of storing waterproof socks, ponchos and raincoats for two weeks in his London flat.
At trial, set to start in January, the main witness, Junaid Babar, is expected to say Hashmi held the military clothing for him, knowing they would be passed to al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Prosecutors say Hashmi also gave his phone to Babar to call a convicted bombing conspirator and lent Babar money for a plane ticket to Pakistan to transport the gear. Babar has testified at terrorism trials in Britain and Canada since pleading guilty in 2004 to supporting al Qaeda.
“We are seeing Muslims accused of terrorism who are experiencing a much harsher brand of due process,” said Hashmi’s lawyer, Sean Maher. “These measures ... lead to a situation of complete sensory deprivation.”
Hashmi is the first terrorism suspect extradited to the United States from Britain, making his a test case for U.S.-British cooperation. He has pleaded not guilty and faces up to 70 years in prison if convicted.
The SAMs include a 23-hour-a-day lockdown, constant video surveillance of his cell and a limit of two visits per month from one family member. Hashmi’s lawyer says that means his client is not in a state to defend himself properly.
Hashmi is one of only five defendants held under SAMs before trial; four of the five are terrorism suspects. Usually such prisoners face the special measures after conviction.
Of more than 200,000 federal inmates, 42 are held under SAMs and of those, 28 are imprisoned on terrorism-related convictions, the Justice Department said.
Editing by Mark Egan and Sandra Maler