Islamic Scholar Challenges Treatment in Prison

The Bureau of Prisons says it finds no civil rights violation in the treatment of Ali al-Tamimi, an Islamic scholar convicted in Virginia last year of urging young Muslim men to join the Taliban and fight U.S. troops. Al-Tamimi's lawyer says his client has been moved to stop him from meeting with his attorneys, and has been verbally abused.

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Dr. Ali al-Tamimi is a former cancer researcher who's serving a life sentence in prison for supporting the Taliban. He's trying to appeal his conviction, but he's had a hard time doing it. A defense lawyer claims that for the last year, prison officials have verbally abused his client and prevented legal meetings. Yesterday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said it was unable to substantiate most of those claims.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has this report.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Jonathan Turley is Ali al-Tamimi's lead defense lawyer.

Mr. JONATHAN TURLEY (Attorney): This has truly been the most surreal experience of my professional life.

SHAPIRO: It started a year ago when his client was sentenced to life in prison for giving speeches that prosecutors said encouraged American Muslims to wage jihad against the U.S.

Once al-Tamimi entered the prison system, Turley says he all but disappeared.

Mr. TURLEY: He was transferred to at least six different prisons in four states in less than six months. It became a version of Where's Waldo? We could not find him.

SHAPIRO: After six months, Turley went to a judge.

Mr. TURLEY: I had to inform the federal courts that I had to file a brief in this appeal, but I have yet to speak with my client since he had been transferred from Virginia. It's pretty hard to file an appellate brief when you can't speak with the man you're representing.

SHAPIRO: Turley got an extension for al-Tamimi's appeal, and he reached an agreement with prison officials that would allow him to meet with his client.

Mr. TURLEY: They told me that I could call back the next day and that they would arrange a time and place. And I told them that I wanted to come out as soon as possible. They said, fine. Said just call us tomorrow.

So I called them in the morning, and they said we just transferred him. And we can't tell you where he's going.

SHAPIRO: This is why Turley filed a complaint with the Bureau of Prisons. In addition to the Where's Waldo allegations, Turley says al-Tamimi's attorney/client correspondence was opened - he was kept under harsh conditions, and he was verbally abused.

Turley says he gave investigators piles of documents supporting his claims: sworn affidavits, contemporaneous letters, and unrestricted access to al-Tamimi.

Yesterday, the Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General released the findings of the Bureau of Prisons' investigation. The investigation, quote, found insufficient evidence to support the allegations except for one. The investigation found that a prison official did verbally harass al-Tamimi.

That's all the detail the written report offers. The Bureau of Prisons would not comment on it. Neither would the Justice Department. And the Office of the Inspector General said it wouldn't comment on a Bureau of Prisons' investigation, but they pointed out other cases in which investigators have identified civil liberties violations.

There have been allegations in other cases that are similar to those Turley is making. Rachel Meeropol is an attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. She's representing a group of Muslim men who were detained on immigration violations just after 9/11.

Ms. RACHEL MEEROPOL (Attorney, Center for Constitutional Rights): They were kept from contacting the outside world at all. So, you know, we'd have a situation where someone's lawyer would come to the facility to try to meet with him, and he was told at the facility that the detainee wasn't even being held there.

SHAPIRO: Her case hasn't come to trial yet. It'll be heard in New York. The judge in al-Tamimi's case eventually ordered that the prisoner be returned to Virginia. He arrived there last week.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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