Coalition Mobilizes for Man’s Rights in US Courts

Published: Mon 20 Mar 2006 12:57 AM
Coalition Mobilizes for Man’s Rights in US Courts
By Sonia Nettnin
At a public event hosted by the Chicago-Kent School of Law, The Coalition to Protect People’s Rights raised public awareness about a Palestinian-American man, Muhammad Salah, whose case is in US federal court.
From historical, human rights, legal, and political perspectives, two lawyers and an Amnesty International spokesperson provided background information about the case. The pretrial hearing began approximately two weeks ago.
A US citizen for almost 30 years and a resident of Bridgeview, IL Salah has been charged in both the State of Israel and the US for allegedly funneling money to the Palestinian Occupied Territories and into Israel for Hamas military operations in 1993.
In the upcoming trial scheduled for October 2006 US prosecutors want to use the 1993 Hebrew statements signed by Salah while he was in Israeli custody as evidence. Salah’s lawyers have filed a motion to suppress the statements. They say Salah was tortured into signing the 1993 confessions and that the confessions are in a language Salah does not understand.
For the sake of clarity, here is Salah’s affidavit:
“Salah's Statement:
No. 03 CR 978
Judge Amy J. St. Eve
State of Illinois )
County of Cook) SS
Muhammad Salah, being duly sworn deposes and states as follows:
1. I am a United States citizen, a resident of Bridgeview, Illinois, married with five children, and submit this affidavit in support of my Motion to Suppress Statements.
2. On January, 25, 1993, I was arrested by a large group of heavily-armed Israeli soldiers at a Gaza checkpoint in the Palestinian occupied territories. I was immediately handcuffed, blindfolded, and thrown into the back of a jeep where I was forced to lie face down on the floor.
3. A group of soldiers drove me around for many hours, repeatedly stomping on me with their boots and struck me with their rifle butts in my head, my groin, and all over my body while I lay on the floor of their vehicle. They insulted me in English and Arabic, and they were laughing as they stomped on my body, my head, and my groin area. They insulted my mother. They called me a terrorist and constantly threatened me. They used racial slurs toward me and my family. I feared for my life from the moment I was taken into custody.
4. After several hours of this treatment, I was taken to a military interrogation facility in Ramallah where I was held in isolation. I was hooded and kept in handcuffs and leg shackles. I had never been in any jail or prison before, but I was aware of the treatment of many other Palestinians who had been in Israeli custody, including my own mother and step-mother. I was extremely fearful for my life.
5. What happened to me over the following months was an on-going nightmare of unmitigated and unbearable terror, threats, physical and psychological abuse, and sensory and sleep deprivation carried out by numerous Israeli interrogators, soldiers, police officers, jail guards and others working with the Israeli authorities.
6. As a result of the traumatic nature of my protracted interrogation at the hands of Israeli agents and authorities, it is simply too painful for me to articulate everything I experienced.
7. On my first day at the interrogation facility I was put in a room, stripped naked, and threatened by an interrogator calling himself “Haim.” He told me I would be photographed naked with a camera that was placed on top of a file cabinet. Such treatment is particularly degrading in my culture. I was also fearful that my being stripped naked was a prelude to a sexual assault. Once when I began to cry, one of the Israeli agents told me to “stop pretending - we know you like it this way.” I was told that my family and I would be killed or harmed or arrested unless I cooperated. As the agents made these threats, I imagined my wife being arrested and brought to prison in Israel. I thought of her being brought there to face the kind of torture and abuse I was facing. I was beside myself with fear.
8. I asked for a lawyer. Haim and other interrogators laughed at me, and they told me that I had no right to a lawyer in Israel. I was also told that I could be held indefinitely without ever seeing a judge or lawyer or, for that matter, anyone. I was never told that I had the right to remain silent. I was told by “Haim” that I was in a military occupation zone “where no law applies - the only law is what we say,” and that I could be kept hidden for 6 months and nobody would know where I was.
9. Over the next 48 hours, I was forced to stay awake and was interrogated by numerous Israeli agents, including ones who gave me their names as Haim, Nadav, and Benny. When I was not being actively interrogated, I was still forced to remain awake. I was either handcuffed behind my back to a forward slanted child-size chair in a position that caused excruciating pain between my shoulder blades and in my back since I had to balance myself and the chair so I wouldn’t slide off. If I was not shackled to the small chair, I was put in a dark, freezing, closet-sized cell in which I could not stand upright, sit or lie down. This refrigerator cell was about 3 x 2 feet, and I was held there handcuffed to a metal bar behind my back. Most of the time, my head was covered with a filthy, foul-smelling hood reeking of urine, vomit, and other unpleasant substances.
10. Sitting shackled in the small chair caused me great pain and psychological stress, including severe cramping, numbness in my arms and legs, and a feeling of complete helplessness. To this day I still experience pain in my shoulder from being held in this position. During these “waiting” periods I was forced to keep wearing the filthy and rancid hood, which severely limited my ability to breathe normally. I was subjected to deafening music and the sounds of people screaming in pain. Often, while I was sitting hooded in the small chair, someone would come up and hit or slap me on my head and in my face. After a while I recognized Haim by his footsteps, and I came to know the feel of his hand when he hit me. My fear grew each time I heard his footsteps.
11. Throughout my interrogation, I had to beg to use the toilet, and on one occasion urinated on myself because I was not permitted to use the toilet. In my culture, as in any culture, this event was extremely degrading. Prior to my arrest I was suffering from a urinary tract infection and this painful condition was greatly exacerbated by this treatment.
12. Throughout my interrogation I was spoken to in Hebrew and Arabic and was made to speak in Arabic, despite my requests to speak and be spoken to in English, because their Arabic was not native and was colloquial. During this period of interrogation, I was constantly struck and slapped about the head and body many times by interrogator Haim, who appeared to be the one in charge, and by others. I was threatened with more violence, including rape and the murder of myself and my family in the West Bank and the United States. I was told by my interrogators that they knew everything about me, where I lived and even who were my neighbors and friends.
13. At some point during this period, an Israeli agent came into my interrogation room and demanded that I sign a statement in Hebrew. I told him that I did not read or understand Hebrew, and he said that he would read me the statement. I could not comprehend all what he read to me and had great difficulty staying awake because I had been deprived of sleep for so long. Any time an agent observed me nodding off to sleep, he would slap my face and kick me to keep me awake.
14. At first I refused to sign the Hebrew statement, but was told it didn’t matter what the statement said, since it would not be used in court. I was frightened for myself and my family and feeling desperate about more interrogation, violence, hooding, sitting in the tiny chair, and more time in the closet cell. I felt that if I signed they might stop this torture. Any signature of mine that appears on that document was not an act of free will.
15. After some time, I was taken back to the closet-sized freezing cell where I had no blanket or mattress. I was unable to sleep there despite my total exhaustion. My placement in this cell was part of the constant cruelty that I experienced at the hands of these agents.
16. At times I was taken out of the refrigerator cell and subjected to aggressive and threatening interrogation, including threats of blinding me and maiming me, mixed with long periods of waiting while hooded and shackled to the small chair. During this time I was hit, punched and slapped by interrogator “Haim” and others. I could never tell from which direction the blows would be coming. I was threatened with more violence against myself and my family. I was told by “Haim” that they had people working within the FBI and could get the FBI to arrest and to harm my family, including my children in the United States.
17. This pattern of active interrogation, sleep and sensory deprivation, physical abuse, and threats continued without end. I was willing to say anything they wanted me to say.
18. After some point, another Israeli agent demanded that I sign another document written in Hebrew. I had no idea what the document said, and I only signed it to try to end the nightmare I was experiencing. My signing that document was not an act of free will.
19. The interrogations then continued with different interrogators coming in and out. Some would make threats while others would appear calm and promise me that as an American citizen, I would soon go home.
20. Sometimes people would come in the interrogation room and claim they were medical personnel or professors and students from the University who wanted to talk with me. I did not trust or believe any of them. At some point a man came in who claimed he was working with the U.S. Consulate. Given what I had already endured, I did not believe or trust him either at that point.
21. At some point around this time, I refused to sign another document written in Hebrew that Israeli agents threatened me to sign. “Haim” then came into the room and began to hit me and threaten my life. I demanded to see a judge. He laughed and sent me back to the closet-sized refrigeration cell.
22. At some point thereafter, I was told that my interrogation was over, and I was going to be placed in a regular cell with other detainees.
23. I spent a night in a cell with 10 to 15 prisoners who claimed to be high ranking members of various resistance groups who told me that I should write a statement of what had happened to me and why I had come to Israel to prove to them that I was not a “collaborator.” I wrote a 2-3 page statement explaining what had happened and why I had come to the occupied territories. In this statement, I wrote the truth, that I had come to the occupied territories to deliver money that had been raised for humanitarian purposes to support the families of approximately 400 Palestinian men who had been deported by the Israelis, a violation of international law that was condemned by the United Nations and United States.
24. The next day I was taken to a prison in Hebron and placed in a cell with 15-20 Palestinian prisoners who also claimed to be part of resistance movements. They asked me to write a statement of why I had come to Israel. When I explained that I had already written such a statement and refused to write another one, they began to call me a traitor. They held a razor to my face and threatened to kill me.
25. They then tied my hands and my feet to the corner of the two bed posts, covered my head, and proceeded to hit me repeatedly and kicked me in the groin. They threatened to rape me. They showed me a blue bowl with a rounded and pointed bottom, which they then forced me to sit on several times for as long as ten minutes, causing me excruciating pain. They covered my mouth to muffle my screams of anguish. To this day I experience intense pain when I have to move my bowels.
26. Over the course of the next several days, I was forced to remain tied to the corner of the bed. This position is known as a “zawiya,” which describes a treatment that is designed for traitors or collaborators. I was repeatedly threatened in many ways unless I wrote a statement in which I was to state that I was involved with Hamas.
27. I was repeatedly threatened and frightened for my life, and I was forced to comply with their demands. These men would take what I wrote and bring back to me written questions and information that they wanted me to include in additional written statements. I eventually included in a written statement all the information that they provided to me in writing. The written questions and information that they presented to me made it clear what it was they wanted me to say. I knew that the only way to save my life and protect myself from further harm was to do what they wanted me to do.
28. After I completed this statement, I was transferred back to Ramallah where I was again subjected to interrogation, threats and abuse by the Israeli interrogators, particularly by agent “Cohen” this time.
29. I was then interrogated by agent “Nadav” who began asking me about parts of the written statement, which I told him was not information that I had supplied. He ordered me to go along with it and made it clear that if I did not comply, the abuse and deprivations would continue. Faced with this, I had no choice but to submit to his use of the statement to interrogate me and acquiesced to whatever contents of the statement he wished me to agree with.
30. So many horrible things happened to me during those months. In addition to the facts stated above, there were times when I was placed in an overheated room, which made me feel I was about to die, and I screamed for relief. I was fearful that I would be poisoned, and I lost 33 pounds during this period. I wore the same clothing for the entire period, and I was not allowed to take a shower for approximately a month.
31. Discussing these events has been very difficult. It has renewed the extreme pain and humiliation that I endured. I have tried my best to accurately recall the facts, but I believe that there may be things that took place that I am unable to articulate because they are simply too much to bear. Remembering and re-telling what happened to me twelve years ago has made me cry and has brought back the indescribable suffering that was inflicted upon me. It still is difficult for me to believe that any human being could do these things to another human being.
Signed and Sworn to before me
this 17th day of October, 2005.
Mohammad Salah
Notary Public”
The CPPR distributed a written synopsis of Salah’s life that explains during his 80-day interrogation (media reports say 53 days) the Israeli General Security Services (Shabak), allegedly tortured Salah “…and forced Mr. Salah to sign ‘confessions’ in Hebrew, a language that Mr. Salah did not understand.” In 1995 Salah was sentenced to a five-year sentence in an Israeli Military Court and the US froze Salah’s family assets after an Executive Order named him a Specially Designated Terrorist.
In 1997 Salah returned to the US but he was required to obtain licenses from the Department of Treasury. Salah’s employment, bank accounts and medical care are some examples that require government approval.
The coalition’s concluding written summary explains: “Not until 2001 did the United States Government re-launch a grand jury investigation into Mr. Salah’s case. Then, in 2004, almost twelve years after his trip to the Palestinian occupied territories, the US charged Mr. Salah with aiding a terrorist organization based on the Hebrew ‘confessions,’ obtained through torture in 1993. He is scheduled to stand trial in the fall of 2006 in the United States District Court of the Northern District of Illinois. Mr. Salah’s lawyers have moved to suppress the 1993 Hebrew ‘confessions’ as evidence. The court has barred the public and the press from the first six days of the hearing in which two of Mr. Salah’s Israeli interrogators are on the witness stand. The courtroom will not open to the public until Monday afternoon, March 13, 2006. The closing of the hearing further violates Mr. Salah’s Sixth Amendment Constitutional rights and the public’s First Amendment right to a full public trial.”
Coalition Members include: Amnesty International, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Arab American Action Network, Chicagoland Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights, Civil Rights Education Center, Council of Islamic Organization of Greater Chicago, Council on American Islamic Organizations (CAIR-Chicago), International Solidarity Movement, and American Friends Service Committee – Chicago.
At the event the coalition had a child’s chair, approximately 20 cm in height. The front legs already cut off declined the seat at a 45 degree angle. While a woman narrated Salah’s affidavit, a young man, one of Salah’s sons, re-enacted the position abuses, called the Shabeh. For a couple of minutes he sat in the chair, a hood over his head, and his hands behind his back.
Human Rights Organizations and International Law
Interrogation techniques such as beatings, threats, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, closet cells, exposure to heat/cold, forced personal unhygienic, loud deafening music, and people screaming – are detailed in a 2003 report published by Addameer – a prisoners’ support and human rights association. Addameer is the Arabic word for “conscience.” The Addameer report is based on information gathered from Palestinian prisoners.
The organization compiled a list of 18 Palestinian prisoners who died in Israeli prisons also. Some deaths occurred in a couple of days and other deaths occurred within months.
The Israeli Human Rights Organization B’tselem has extensive documentation about the abuse and torture of Palestinians while in Israeli detention, including testimonies from Palestinian prisoners.
According to Article 1 of the UN Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment “…torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”
Article 15 explains that any statement established “…as a result of torture shall not be invoked as evidence in any proceedings, except against a person accused of torture as evidence that the statement was made.”
Coalition’s Event
How international and US law will be applied in Salah’s case is difficult to determine since the details of what happened is classified security information. When two of the Israeli interrogators gave their testimonies at the pretrial hearing, the federal courtroom was closed to the public, per the Classified Information Procedures Act (CIPA). Hence, the public does not know the contents of the secret evidence.
At the coalition’s event, G. Flint Taylor from the People’s Law Office talked about the history of torture and the ramifications it has had upon legal proceedings in the country. He describes torture as “American as apple pie.”
“People in power have always had a great admiration for the government of Israel and their intelligence agencies and military operated above and around the law…that they did not genuflect and give lip service to due process and other basic rights,” he said. “Given 9/11 this country is moving towards that same approach.”
Taylor explained that people in the US have experienced torture by certain US police officers, but that it pales in comparison to the array of sophisticated, torture techniques of Israel, called the Shin Bet Method. He said that the people who used this method are “…by some of the most sophisticated the most ruthless agents in the world,” Taylor added.
James Fennerty from the National Lawyer’s Guild shared his point of view about the current, legal atmosphere, with respect to Muslims and Arabs.
“The Arab community has been under surveillance for decades,” he said. “After 9/11, after the Cold War the US was looking for an industrial weapon complex that churns out WMDs. They are looking for the new enemy…they want to keep the machine going so they can make money off weapons.”
Fennerty said: “I know Muhammad. He is a gentle man with strong feelings for his people and his family. He is a victim of the Cold War.” He stressed to the audience that people have to stand together for Muhammad and people like Muhammad to let everyone know that people do not stand alone.
Amnesty International Spokesperson Charles Schultz was on hand to explain why AI has taken up Salah’s case and why it is important for AI. Schultz shared that torture is an issue in 195 countries and territories, and perpetrated in places where it is hard to document. “Torture is a systematic destruction of a person, family, neighborhood, school, and organization,” he said. It is a way of controlling a population the state perceives as dangerous.”
The final speaker was Maryam Salah, the wife of Muhammad Salah. She said: “Peace to all of us sisters and brothers – I think this issue is bigger than just one man. We are one nation under God our common humanity should not overrule…I see our common humanity but I wish it could be beyond the physical sense, for a spiritual sense. Yes, we have suffered for 13 very long years but I feel it has not hardened us, but softened us, we cry together, we have tears in our eyes - our eyes speak to each other. I want to share with you what I have learned from the suffering, suffering not just about one American-Muslim family. It’s about the fate of our nation, beloved America, we need to elevate the discourse in this country we have more in common as human beings than we have differences - hopes, aspirations, work for the common humanity, when a man, any man tortures another, when our Constitutional Rights are being trampled, prisoners in horrible conditions in Guantanamo, Iraq, both Iraqi and American boys are killed, when a synagogue is vandalized in Skokie it breaks my heart…I’m sad, I’m heartbroken but I’m hopeful because together we can do something about it.”
The purpose of the event was to provide the public information about the case absent from some news reports and without the media’s spin. The coalition’s intent was to speak in support of Salah’s rights as a human being and his Constitutional rights as an American citizen. Their overall objective was to garner support for the accused. Law experts raised their concerns about the legal proceedings of the case and explained the meaning of the legal and political term “rendition.” The pretrial hearing at the Dirksen Federal Building is open to the public now. The judge will not render a decision until May 1 or thereafter.
Sonia Nettnin is a freelance writer. Her articles and reviews demonstrate civic journalism, with a focus on international social, economic, humanitarian, gender, and political issues. Media coverage of conflicts from these perspectives develops awareness in public opinion.
Nettnin received her bachelor's degree in English literature and writing. She did master's work in journalism. Moreover, Nettnin approaches her writing from a working woman's perspective, since working began for her at an early age.
She is a poet, a violinist and she studied professional dance. As a writer, the arts are an integral part of her sensibility. Her work has been published in the Palestine Chronicle, Scoop Media and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. She lives in Chicago.

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