Mohammed Yousry never imagined that he would see the inside of a jail cell. An adjunct lecturer at the City University of New York, Yousry was completing his doctoral dissertation in Middle Eastern Studies when a series of events upended his quiet academic life.
In 1993, Yousry received a job offer to work as an Arabic translator for the defense team of Omar Abdel Rahman, also known as the “Blind Sheikh.” Abdel Rahman, the spiritual leader of the Egyptian militant group Gamaa Islamiya, had been arrested earlier that year on accusations of plotting terrorist attacks against public landmarks in New York City.
In 1997, the Federal Bureau of Prisons placed Abdel Rahman under “special administrative measures,” or SAMs, a legal regimen that restricts certain prisoners from communicating with the outside world.
First established 20 years ago, in May 1996, SAMs were designed to prevent alleged gang leaders and terrorists from maintaining contact with their followers outside prison. In the years since 9/11, the controversial measures have been used extensively in terrorism cases. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch found that the number of prison inmates subjected to SAMs more than tripled between 2001 and 2013. As of 2013, a total of 55 prisoners were held under SAMs; roughly 30 were “terrorism-related inmates,” while the remainder were mostly inmates jailed on organized crime and espionage charges.
“The premise behind SAMs is that there is a certain class of prisoner so dangerous that even solitary isn’t enough. They need to be kept so under wraps that a special regime is necessary where their communication with the outside world is completely shut down,” says Wadie Said, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and expert on terrorism prosecutions. “The problem with these types of extraordinary measures, however, is that when you start putting them in the hands of government bureaucrats, the rationale starts to break down and they are enforced more liberally.”
That is precisely what happened to Yousry. Lynne Stewart, the defense team’s lead attorney in the Abdel Rahman case, was charged with violating the SAMs by disseminating her client’s political statements to the media and surrogates of a terrorist group. But in an unprecedented move, the government also decided to prosecute the legal team’s translator, who had never signed the SAMs order.
Yousry suddenly found himself accused of supporting a terrorist. He and several others involved in Abdel Rahman’s defense are the only people ever to have been prosecuted by the federal government for violating the SAMs.
Mohammed Yousry was born in 1955 in Cairo, Egypt. At a young age, Yousry developed what would be a lifelong infatuation with studying, spending hours immersed in books by Arab, American, and European writers. After graduating from Cairo University and completing his compulsory military service, at 24, he immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in New York City.
Yousry spent many years working a variety of odd jobs and taking college courses at night, while nursing dreams of a future in academia. During this time, he also met his future wife, a fellow student and naturalized immigrant from the Dominican Republic. She was a devout Christian, something that Yousry, as a non-practicing Muslim, didn’t see as an obstacle. The couple fell in love, got married, and soon after had a daughter.
In 1990, Yousry was admitted to New York University for a graduate program in Middle Eastern Studies. Around that time, New York City was facing an acute shortage of court translators, including those with knowledge of Arabic, and Yousry found part-time work translating for lawyers and news agencies.
Two years after Yousry started his graduate research, a truck bomb detonated in the parking garage of the World Trade Center’s north tower, killing six people and injuring more than a thousand others. The bombing triggered chaos throughout lower Manhattan and alerted law enforcement to the threat of terrorism posed by extremist groups. Searching for possible links to the attackers, investigators cast a wide net on the city’s Arab and Muslim communities, seeking out connections to radical movements.
Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind leader of Gamaa Islamiya, was among those who attracted the FBI’s attention. Though he lived in the United States, he remained an influential figure in Egypt, where his group was fighting an insurgency against the government. Copies of his sermons inveighing against the oppression of the Mubarak government were widely disseminated in Cairo and Alexandria. A few months after the 1993 bombing, Abdel Rahman was arrested and accused of conspiring in a separate plot to attack city landmarks.
After the arrest, Yousry was hired by Abdel Rahman’s legal team, headed by Lynne Stewart, a radical lawyer with a reputation for taking controversial cases, and asked to work as an Arabic translator. As a scholar of contemporary Middle Eastern history, the potential controversy of working with such a client gave him pause. But after speaking with academic advisers and deciding it could provide useful experience for his future dissertation, he decided to accept.
For the next year and a half, Yousry translated reports, news articles, and phone conversations for Abdel Rahman and Stewart’s legal team.
The first time he actually met with Abdel Rahman, Yousry was surprised to find that the image he had of the cleric, whose Gamaa Islamiya movement had killed thousands of people in Egypt, did not comport with the prisoner’s ironic personal demeanor. “He had a certain charisma that stemmed from his blindness and his very profound sense of humor,” Yousry said, even comparing him to the legendary Egyptian comedian Adel Imam. The two disagreed vociferously on politics, but over time developed a reasonable working relationship.
In 1995, Abdel Rahman was convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to life imprisonment. While Stewart continued to represent him during the appeals process, bringing Yousry back on as a translator in May 1997, the restrictions placed on Abdel Rahman were about to make the case much more perilous.
Stewart signed the SAMs agreement, legally precluding her from publicly disseminating her client’s statements. Stewart chafed under these restrictions and over time began to openly rebel against them. As a translator, Yousry was never asked to sign the order. “The lawyers worked out a system in which they’d review communications and determine what is consistent with the terms of the SAMs,” Yousry said, adding that it was his understanding that regardless of what tactics Abdel Rahman’s legal team employed, as a translator he would not be targeted under the SAMs regulations.
Over time, Stewart became so sympathetic to her client that she came to support the Gamaa Islamiya’s goal of overthrowing the Egyptian regime. Yousry, who grew up in Egypt, never shared this opinion, viewing the Gamaa as simply another evil within Egypt’s political milieu.
“Gamaa Islamiya and Omar Abdel Rahman advocated violence against the totalitarian Egyptian regime, which, to be clear, also employed heinous violence against Egyptian citizens,” Yousry said. “I would have chosen the regime as a lesser evil, however. Mubarak was a dictator but the Gamaa were religious extremists and I thought they would set Egyptian society backwards if they came to power.”
Not long after the SAMs went into effect, the leaders of Gamaa Islamiya reached a truce with the Egyptian government. Declaring that violent confrontation with Egypt’s rulers had served no constructive purpose, the Gamaa pledged to cease its struggle and integrate into Egyptian political life.
In return for an end to violence, the government promised to release key Gamaa leaders from prison and ease pressure on their families. The truce caused divisions within the group. When it seemed as though the government was not holding up its end of the bargain, Gamaa supporters sent a letter to Abdel Rahman, through his legal team, asking for his opinion on maintaining the cease-fire.
Any public comment on the cease-fire from Abdel Rahman could constitute a breach of the SAMs. However, Stewart decided to take a risk and disseminate a public statement on the issue by Abdel Rahman.
In his statement, Abdel Rahman told Yousry in Arabic that the cease-fire should be maintained, but that public rhetoric against the Egyptian government should be escalated over the its failure to uphold agreements with the Gamaa. “Abdel Rahman had supported the initial cease-fire and had never changed his view on that,” Yousry said.
On June 13, 2000, Stewart spoke to a Reuters reporter based in Cairo, Esmat Salaheddin, and communicated something different: that the sheikh had effectively nullified the cease-fire. The next day, newspapers in the region were reporting that the leader of Gamaa Islamiya had called for a resumption of hostilities in Egypt, triggering a major controversy.
Initially, the government did not file charges for violation of the SAMs order. Behind the scenes, however, a criminal investigation was initiated into the entire legal team.
Then, on September 11, 2001, two hijacked planes flew in the World Trade Center towers in New York. The highly aggressive law enforcement posture that followed the attacks immediately heightened the sensitivity of the Abdel Rahman case.
“Two days after September 11, two FBI agents came to my house,” Yousry says. For over an hour, the agents probed him with questions about Omar Abdel Rahman, Stewart, and his own political views, and asked him to become an informant inside the legal team — an offer he refused. Before leaving the house, Yousry recalls one of the agents telling him that she was giving him “one final opportunity to jump on board the train.”
“I’m already on the train,” Yousry replied. “I don’t have anything to do with violence or radicalism. I’m just doing the job as a translator that I was hired for by the government.”
On April 9, 2002, roughly seven months after the FBI’s initial visit, agents came back to Yousry’s house to arrest him. Lynne Stewart and two other co-defendants were placed under arrest that same day. The four were charged with multiple terrorism offenses, including conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism, soliciting acts of violence, and conspiracy to defraud the United States. Yousry’s bail was set at $750,000, significantly higher than Stewart’s bail, set at $500,000.
The case was soon caught up in the broader fight against global terrorism. In an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said, “We simply aren’t going to allow people who are convicted of terrorism to continue to achieve terrorist objectives by sending messages and directing the activity from their prison.”
In the trial of Yousry and his co-defendants that began in the summer of 2004 and lasted nearly eight months, the prosecution focused on the terrifying specter of Omar Abdel Rahman and the Gamaa Islamiya, suggesting that his legal team had helped support a terrorist who was planning to “kill Americans everywhere.”
Asked by the prosecutor about his knowledge of the restrictions, Yousry replied:
I believed in general that the SAMs were imposed on the client to restrict his communication with the outside world. However, I also believed that the lawyers were in charge of implementing these administrative measures. They are the one who understand the legality of it. They are the one that signed the affidavit. They are the ones who were responsible for telling me what to do. So I took guidance from them.
While prosecutors portrayed Yousry’s co-defendants as active supporters of terrorism, they were forced to concede that the translator was different. Yousry, the bookish, wine-drinking academic, was a hard person to portray as a supporter of Islamic extremism. “Mohammed Yousry is not a lawyer. He is not a practicing Muslim. He is not a fundamentalist,” said prosecutor Anthony Barkow. “He is not a supporter of Abdel Rahman or of the Islamic Group.”
Yet, the government argued that by translating the communications between Abdel Rahman and Stewart, Yousry had supported a conspiracy. “[Yousry] doesn’t need to know that he violated any particular law,” the prosecutor said. “He needs only to be aware of the generally unlawful nature of what he did.”
When the convictions came down on February 10, 2005, Yousry was stunned. “During the sentencing, while the judge was reading his verdict, I was sure at the end that he was going to vacate my sentence or give me probation,” he recalled. “I honestly couldn’t believe I was being sent to jail by the government for translating a court case, the job they’d hired me to do.”
Released in 2011 after spending 16 months in prison, today Yousry is free, but his criminal record has prevented him from finding employment. “Never in a million years did I imagine that anything like this could happen,” Yousry reflects years later. “Not only was I sent to prison, but my academic career, my translation career, and my research career were all destroyed by the government.”
Of the dozens of prisoners believed to be detained under SAMs today, some of them are people with deep links to international terrorism, like World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. But others are younger men like Fahad Hashmi and Mahdi Hashi, whose cases are far murkier, but who nonetheless are held under the same draconian regime. A number of individuals whose cases are still in pretrial, such as 30-year-old Muhannad al-Farekh, are also being held under SAMs today.
Lawyers and human rights advocates claim that the restrictions and surveillance the SAMs impose make defending clients in such cases nearly impossible. “SAMs completely undermine the concept of attorney-client privilege and the relationship of trust necessary for a lawyer to do their job,” says Khurrum Wahid, a lawyer who has defended clients subjected to the measures. “It creates a conflict of interest between an attorney and their client. Instead of focusing on zealously defending them, many lawyers end up being concerned that they might say something inartfully that could get themselves into trouble.”
While Stewart’s prosecution raised some alarm within the legal community, it was the prosecution of her translator that stands out as a particularly gross example of government overreach. “The prosecution of Yousry was really ugly,” says Said.
“It sent a message to translators that even if they didn’t sign any agreement, they can still be held legally responsible for SAMs violations,” he continued. “Although the government has not prosecuted any lawyers or translators for SAMs violations since this case, the fact that they did it even once set a precedent that is really chilling.”
In the years since Yousry’s arrest and trial, the U.S. government has struggled to find competent Arabic-language translators. In sensitive legal cases, like the ongoing military-court hearings at Guantánamo Bay, the inability to find such translators has often proven disastrous. “In practice, Arabic interpreters [at Guantánamo] often not only flunk the accuracy test, but sometimes even fail to competently understand or communicate in the detainees’ native language,” says Omar Shakir, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights representing clients at Guantánamo Bay, who describes the shortage of capable Arabic translators as a systemic issue.
Yousry was in many ways the ideal prototype for a U.S. government translator. Fluent in both Arabic and English, a scholar of Middle Eastern history, and deeply committed to his adopted country, he could navigate both Western and Arab cultures with ease. But because of his criminal record, his services are no longer available to the United States.
In the collective mania prompted by 9/11, Yousry, a soft-spoken Egyptian-American professor with a visceral opposition to political Islam, was branded in the media and the courts as a supporter of terrorism. And in its zeal to find enemies, the American government targeted someone whose services it could have used most.
Speaking to him today, Yousry expresses a quiet resignation about his case, as well as the demise of his academic career. “I’m 61 years old now and my health is not what it was before all this started. I’m not trying to build a future, nor is that really possible anymore.”
Yousry believes that little has changed in the 12 years years since his trial. The government, he maintains, is still pursuing people “undeserving of prosecution” in its efforts to demonstrate that it is fighting terrorism.
“To try and project strength to the public during a period of uncertainty,” he says, “sometimes the government decides that people have to suffer.”