Benkahla v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, et al.

June 2, 2010

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Indiana today filed a legal complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana challenging the confinement of an American citizen in a Communication Management Unit (CMU) – secretly created housing units inside federal prisons in which prisoners are condemned to live in stark isolation from the outside world.

The government says it created CMUs to house prisoners it views as terrorists, but today they are disproportionately inhabited by Muslim prisoners – many of whom have never been convicted of terrorism related crimes. In addition, these CMUs were established in violation of federal laws requiring public scrutiny, without any opportunity for public comment or oversight in a clear effort to skirt obligations of accountability and transparency.

The ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of Sabri Benkahla, who was born and raised in Virginia and who is a graduate of George Mason University. Benkahla was studying Islamic law and jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia in 2003 when he was abducted at gunpoint by the Saudi secret police the night before his wedding, transferred to the custody of the FBI, flown back to America and charged with supplying services to the Taliban and using a firearm in connection with a crime of violence. After a bench trial, U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema found him not guilty. Brinkema called his arrest and transfer to American authorities "a Kafkaesque situation."

Less than a month later, however, the government – not satisfied with Benkahla's acquittal – forced him to testify before a federal grand jury. He was accused and convicted of perjury, despite the fact that most of the allegedly false statements he was accused of making involved the same subject matter that served as the basis for his previous trial. Benkahla was sentenced to 121 months in prison, but even his sentencing judge, U.S. District Court Judge James C. Cacheris, declared unequivocally that "Sabri Benkahla is not a terrorist," highlighted his "model citizenry," and stated that the chances of Benkahla ever committing another crime were "infinitesimal." Additionally, according to Judge Cacheris, the court "received more letters on [Benkahla's] behalf than any other defendant in twenty-five years, all attesting to his honor, integrity, moral character, opposition to extremism, and devotion to civic duty," including a letter from United States Representative James Moran which described Benkahla as "an upstanding and productive member of society."

Despite Judge Cacheris' findings, Benkahla was nonetheless moved from the Northern Ohio Correctional Facility in Youngstown, Ohio to the CMU in Terre Haute without any kind of a hearing or legitimate means of challenging his placement. He now endures severe restrictions on his communication with his friends and family and is unable to interact with non-CMU prisoners. Should he be forced to remain in the CMU, Benkahla will be prohibited from contact with visitors for the duration of his sentence – including being barred from hugging his son.

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