The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging the construction of what it claims are draconian isolation housing units tucked inside an Indiana federal prison, designed specifically to keep close tabs on suspected terrorists.
The main problem, the ACLU claims in a lawsuit filed Thursday, is that the units were unlawfully built without any public input, and they're disproportionately filled by Muslim prisoners, many of whom have never been convicted of terrorism-related crimes.
"There's no real opportunity that prisoners have to challenge this ... That really raises a real danger that people who don't deserve to be there will wind up there anyway," said ACLU staff attorney David Shapiro, the lead attorney on the case.
The complaint, Bankahala v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, names as defendants U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder and two senior BOP officials.
When contacted for comment, BOP officials referred calls to the Department of Justice, which declined comment.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Sabri Benkahla, an American citizen confined in the special units -- known as Communication Management Units (CMU) -- at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.
The units opened in 2006. CMU officials monitor all telephone calls and mail. Inmates in the units get one 15-minute phone call a week and two two-hour visits a month. No physical contact is allowed with anyone, not even children.
According to Shapiro, Benkahla does not belong there, as he was found not guilty by a federal judge in 2004 of providing support to the Taliban. He argues that Benkahla, a graduate of George Mason University, is a model citizen and good father.
According to the ACLU, 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 to the United States and charged with supplying services to the Taliban and using a firearm in connection with a crime of violence.
After a bench trial, he was found not guilty.
Less than a month later, the government, the ACLU claims, forced him to testify before a federal grand jury. He was accused, retried and convicted of perjury, despite the fact, says the ACLU, 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. At his sentencing, U.S. District Court Judge James C. Cacheris declared that "Sabri Benkahla is not a terrorist," highlighted his "model citizenry" and stated that the chances of Benkahla committing another crime were "infinitesimal."
The ACLU, meanwhile, remains puzzled as to why Benkahla was moved from a prison in Ohio to the special unit in Terre Haute in 2007. His communications with his friends and family have been severely restricted, the ACLU claims, and he is unable to interact with non-CMU prisoners.
"It is simply unfair to force Sabri Benkahla to serve his sentence in a horrifically isolated housing unit designed by the government to hold terrorists when he has never been convicted of any crime of terrorism," Shapiro said. "The Bureau of Prisons should be held accountable for these units and the people like Sabri who are wrongfully held there."
Tresa Baldas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org