Law center for Muslims to challenge presumption of guilt

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – A former U.S. military attorney keynoted a well-attended Muslim Legal Fund of America fundraising event here, Nov. 15, announcing the formation of a new law center specifically for Muslims in the United States facing constitutional and civil rights violations.

The evening featured speakers MLFA executive director Khalil Meek, internationally known Islamic scholar Hamza Yusuf, and Lt. Cmdr. (Ret.) Charles Swift, an attorney who is setting up the Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America. The center will be a non-profit law firm that will take on civil and criminal cases for Muslims suffering violations of human rights. All three speakers hammered home the grave violations of the civil rights of Muslims, including unjustified and indiscriminate surveillance, politically motivated prosecutions and convictions, and entrapment of youth by FBI agents.

Formerly a top military attorney for the Navy, and not a Muslim himself, Swift set the tone for the gathering when he described how he came to his passionate commitment to defend Muslims under attack. While still a Navy lawyer, he was called on to defend Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver, who was then being held at Guantánamo. Appalled by unconstitutional procedures in the court at Guantánamo, Swift won the right to have the case transferred to a federal court, only to find that federal courts were no better.

“If you were Muslim,” said Swift, “you were not innocent until proven guilty; you were guilty until proven innocent”-a statement that gave the title to the event, Guilty Until Proven Innocent. Hamdan’s conviction was ultimately reversed, and he was able to return home to Yemen.

“The first thing I learned in government,” Swift continued, “is to follow the money.” He pointed out that in the period since Sept. 11, 2001, there have been 500 terrorism-related prosecutions targeting Muslims, out of a total of 10,000 federal prosecutions-but the government spent 40 percent of its prosecution budget on that 5 percent. “They need results,” commented Swift.

Entrapment has become a common FBI tactic in dealing with Muslim youth. FBI agents posing as members of a terrorist group will approach a Muslim teenager, perhaps one who has expressed some dissident views about U.S. foreign policy, and persuade him or her to agree to join in some criminal act-whereupon the confused young person will be arrested and charged. A number of Muslim youth are serving long prison sentences as the result of such entrapment. Swift pointed out that of the 27 so-called “major” terrorism prosecutions since 9/11-that is, those involving actual planned or  (in three cases) realized attacks, all but one (the Boston Marathon bombing) were in fact planned by the FBI as part of this entrapment policy.

Swift reported that since 9/11, the FBI no longer needs probable cause to put someone under surveillance or on a “no-fly” list; in the case of Muslims, traveling to certain countries, including Pakistan and Israel, or simply refusing to talk to the FBI without a lawyer present, is enough to get a person on a list of persons “suspected” of connections to terrorism. In 2009, that list included over 200,000 Muslims; by 2013, it included over 400,000-out of an estimated 2.75 million Muslims in the U.S., according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. (That same survey showed negligible support for extremism among U.S. Muslims.)

Being on the list can, among other things, cause long delays for applicants for citizenship or residency; some 19,000 Muslim applicants have been caught in this so-called Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program. People put on the list have no access to due process for getting off it. “What does this tell us?” Swift concluded. “That in the view of the government everyone in this room is presumed to be guilty.” (The overwhelming majority of attendees were Muslim, many of them immigrants.)

The Constitutional Law Center for Muslims in America will combat these attacks on constitutional rights by taking on cases that are likely to have an impact on civil liberties, especially those involving “national security” laws with dangerously vague provisions. Swift also indicated that the center will seek to build coalitions with other organizations such as the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations; encourage major law firms to take on Muslim civil rights cases and develop young Muslim attorneys.

Swift said that his passion for this cause was in his blood; an ancestor of his, Bridget Bishop, was hanged as a witch in Salem, Mass., because she was “different.”

“I want to do this,” he went on, “because I believe that this country is the greatest country in the world, but I don’t think it’s defined by a flag. What is unique to this country is the Constitution. And the Constitution has to be defended by the minorities. This is the most important cause of our time.”

Photo: Attorney Charles Swift, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, speaks during a 2008 press conference on the Hamdan case. Fellow defense attorney Joe McMillan stands behind Swift. (CC)



Henry Millstein
Henry Millstein

Hank Millstein is a long-time peace and labor activist. He's a fiction writer and journalist and a member of the National Writers Union.