As this year draws to a close, we look back at a bittersweet victory that has been a long time coming — and made possible thanks to your support.
When MLFA began funding cases in 2001, our goal was to provide financial support to American Muslims targeted on the basis of their faith and identity who face obstacles in the legal system and violations of their constitutional rights.
In the 18 years since we started, we’ve alleviated the costs of litigation to hundreds of beneficiaries, established a premiere law center to institutionalize knowledge and build capacity, and developed programs to protect and empower our communities from the inside, out.
We’ve had many successes over the years, but this year, we are especially humbled to have contributed to securing the reversal of one of the first terror convictions in the aftermath of 9/11 - a case that we have been funding for the past 5 years and in which justice finally prevailed.
The defendant in that case, Hamid Hayat, was unfortunately caught up in the war on terror gone wrong, and became a victim of a legal system that failed to protect his rights. His case serves as a heart-breaking example of why building legal power for Muslims in America is crucial, and also demonstrates that while the road to justice may be long and winding, it is still indeed possible.
With your support, we can continue to fund the work that makes justice possible and prevent more innocent people from being victimized by a government intent on criminalizing them simply on the basis of their faith.
Hamid Hayat, an American citizen of Pakistani descent, lived with his parents and siblings in a small town called Lodi in the northern portion of California's Central Valley. His parents had emigrated there from Pakistan in the 1970s, joining a growing community of immigrants who established the first mosque in town. Keen on giving their son an Islamic education, they sent him to Pakistan during his elementary years to study the Quran.
In 2000, Hamid contracted meningitis, landing him in a hospital and affecting him physically and mentally. He returned to his family in Lodi and led the life of an idle teen, engrossed in video games and cricket matches - until he befriended a new man in town that would change his life forever.
It was this toxic relationship with Naseem Khan, an undercover FBI informant whose own mother testified to being nothing more than a “bagful of lies,” that led Hamid Hayat from a simple life to one supposedly embedded in a ‘sleeper cell of terror’ to the confines of a federal prison cell in the span of a few years.
Merely a month after the tragic events of 9/11, the FBI stumbled on Naseem Khan while investigating another man by the same name. In a bid to impress, Khan fed them incredulous stories about seeing Osama Bin Ladin’s top deputy Ayman Al-Zawahiri in the small town of Lodi, California. They hired him to infiltrate this town and report back to them. His code-name: Wildcat. But to Hamid Hayat, Naseem Khan was the attentive, cool new kid on the block.
Naseem’s story turned out to be a lie. Despite cracks in his credibility, the FBI kept him on, intent on discovering terrorists in America. They continued to support him (to the tune of $230,000) in his attempts to prey on Hamid’s vulnerability and radicalize him by encouraging him to go to ‘jihad’. His friendship evolved into bullying and threats. Hamid eventually distanced himself from Naseem and tried to move on. He married a woman in Pakistan, and boarded a flight home to Lodi to arrange for her arrival and their new life together.
That’s when the FBI closed in. Hamid’s flight was diverted to Tokyo, his name popping up on the “no fly” list. He was questioned by the FBI about training at a terrorist camp - which he denied - before being allowed to continue on to America. Once in Lodi, FBI agents appeared at his home and asked him to come in for another interview at their local office.
Hamid innocently complied. He went into the FBI office alone, while his father waited outside. It was during this interrogation (lasting nearly 11 hours, of which only a portion was recorded) that Hamid, with minimal education and understanding - timid, tired, and trusting - said whatever he thought the agents wanted to hear so that he could finally go home.
He made up stories in answer to leading questions and falsely confessed to attending terrorist training camps in Pakistan, awaiting orders to wage holy war in America.
Hamid did not get to go home that night.
Despite the holes in his story and contradictory information that was withheld and even disputed by the agents themselves, the FBI proceeded to use this confession to charge him with material support of terrorism and lying to the FBI.
The government played on Islamophobic tropes to paint Hamid as a dangerous criminal, without any evidence of actual wrongdoing. One of the key pieces of evidence used at trial was a small, folded up piece of paper with a du’a (supplication) that the prosecutors twisted into a ‘warrior’s prayer.’ They argued that Hamid’s possession of this written prayer, which is a common practice in Pakistani Muslim culture - and a First Amendment right - demonstrated his intention to harm America.
Their closing statement to the federal grand jury: “Hamid Hayat had a jihadi heart and a jihadi mind.”
Despite little evidence and lack of an actual crime, Hamid Hayat was convicted on all counts in 2006 and sentenced to 24 years in a federal prison. His family lost their house trying to pay legal fees, lost their son to false imprisonment, and lost their hope of a better life in America.
Hamid’s rights to free speech and a fair trial were violated. Throwing people in jail because of their faith goes against the founding principles of this great nation.
Hamid’s case was fraught with problems - from the ineffective representation by his novice defense lawyer, to the secret evidence used against him at trial, to the absence of witness testimony that would have corroborated his innocence, and even allegations of jury misconduct.
His conviction and severe sentence for virtually no crime was an example of anticipatory or preemptive prosecution - a strategy that promotes suspicion on the basis of guilt by association and relies heavily on FBI informants to find - or create - ‘terrorists,’ then charge them before they even commit a crime. No community should be subjected to this despicable treatment - our constitutional rights are at stake, putting innocent lives at risk.
Hamid spent nearly a decade in prison before his case was reopened. In 2014, Muslim Legal Fund of America financially supported expenses related to a 2255 motion, the equivalent of a habeas corpus petition, to argue for Hamid Hayat’s innocence and freedom. Despite losing the first appeal, we were not deterred from fighting for truth and justice.
Dennis Riordan, one of Hamid’s lawyers, believed that this case was “the most important legal case involving Muslim interests currently in courts of this country,” and the motion to vacate his conviction was “the best vehicle for exposing the harmful effects of anti-Muslim bias in American courtrooms.”
MLFA funded witness and expert testimony that could prove Hamid’s innocence. In 2018, a Federal judge finally agreed to hear the evidence. Earlier this year, she wrote a 116-page recommendation that the conviction of Hamid Hayat be vacated. The case ended up back in the court of the Judge who originally presided over Hamid Hayat’s first trial in 2006 - but this time, he overturned Hamid’s conviction.
A few weeks later, Hamid was back in Lodi with his family - just in time for Eid.
Having served 14 years for a crime he did not commit, Hamid Hayat is now free, thanks to the support of donors like you. He could still face legal challenges in the future - but his unshakeable faith and trust in God’s plan continue to help him through his ordeal. Without your belief in our mission and trust in our work, he could still be behind bars today. It took five years of appeals, but justice reigned in the end.
You gave Hamid his life back. Will you help us give hope to others facing similar challenges to their civil rights and freedoms? The work of justice is not always quick or easy, but it is possible - Hamid’s story is one such example. We can’t do it without your support. Please make a generous contribution to fund the work that makes justice possible.
In faith and for justice,
Khalil Meek, Executive Director