U.S. News

Locked up with militants, freed American talks

NEW YORK (Reuters) - An American held in a special U.S. prison designed to stifle and monitor outside communications had no idea why he was there but befriended fellow prisoners, many of them convicted Islamic militants.

“It was a jarring experience,” Andrew Stepanian told Reuters in an interview. “I don’t think that most citizens ever will have that opportunity in the states to interact with these people that are considered to be the worst of the worst.”

Stepanian, 31, was locked inside a hard-core Communications Management Unit (CMU) in a federal prison in Marion, Illinois, for six months of a three-year sentence for his role in a campaign against testing consumer products on animals.

Five current and former prisoners of these units filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday claiming such units are unconstitutional, illegitimate, and discriminate against Muslims.

While high-profile militants like Zacarias Moussaoui or Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the “Blind Sheik,” are being held in a super-maximum prison in Colorado, many lesser-known detainees have been imprisoned in CMUs, experts said.

Inmates include members of what law enforcement has dubbed the “Virginia Jihad Network,” accused of training for holy war in 2000-2001 and providing support to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group.

“Guards referred to the unit repeatedly as “little Gitmo” or “CTU,” an acronym for “Counter Terrorism Unit” a reference to the television show “24,” said Stepanian.

Initially, he was wary of his fellow inmates. But as the men prayed and played basketball, a bond formed, particularly with Adham Amin Hassoun, a co-defendant of convicted “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, Stepanian said.

Hassoun noticed Stepanian was having trouble adhering to a vegan diet in prison and helped by collecting food from other Muslims in the unit.

“They were all reading the ingredients and bringing it to me and leaving it at the front of my cell,” Stepanian said.

Watching a television broadcast of U.S. demonstrators, Hassoun began to cry and said to the group: “I told you not everyone in this country is bad. Andy is not rare. There’s more of him,” Stepanian recalled.

When he was released, Stepanian wondered what had become about his fellow inmates and researched them online.

“I think about seven or eight of them were listed as foreign al Qaeda operatives,” he said.

Stepanian was sentenced to prison in 2006 in New Jersey under the now defunct Animal Enterprise Protection Act -- a law amended in 2002 to equate its offenses with terrorism.

He was tried along with five other members of a group called “Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty” and was found guilty of conspiracy in a campaign against employees of Huntingdon Life Sciences, a British company that tested consumer products on animals and had operations in New Jersey.

Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Mark Egan and Chris Wilson