BAINBRIDGE – Supporters of an Albany imam - or person who leads prayers in a mosque - convicted of terrorism charges in Albany in 2006 began a ten day, 133 mile walk last Friday with the hopes of publicizing the man’s new appeal based on evidence uncovered through a Freedom of Information Act request in 2011. The supporters are set to pass through Sidney and Bainbridge Saturday and Afton on Sunday.
The walk has been dubbed “Journey for Justice.”
The supporters will hand deliver a petition asking the judge who will hear the appeal – Honorable Thomas McAvoy, Binghamton – to give the appeal serious consideration.
Yassin M. Aref, 43, was an Albany resident when he was arrested by federal authorities in 2004 as part of a counter-terrorism sting operation. Aref was convicted in October of 2006 of conspiring to aid a terrorist group and provide support for a weapon of mass destruction. Charges of money-laundering and supporting a terrorist organization were also included. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Aref left Iraq as a refugee in 1994, lived in Syria for five years, and was then approved by the United Nations as a refugee to be sent to a third country – the United States. He initially held employment as a janitor and ambulance driver, and later secured employment as an imam.
The FBI launched a sting operation in 2003 targeting Aref. FBI agents used a Pakistani informant – who was facing deportation and a long prison stint for fraud – to approach Aref’s friend Mohammed Hossain with the hopes of getting to Aref.
The informant, Shahed Hussein, would extend an offer to loan $50,000 in cash to Hossain and receive $45,000 back in checks from Hossain’s pizza shop business. Hussein was to tell Hossain the money had ties to a Chinese surface to air missile, which was to be given to a terrorist group called Jaish-e-Mohammed, that would then use it to attack the Pakistani Ambassador in New York City. As this was a sting operation, there was no actual missile or plan of assassination. Per Muslim culture, a witness had to be present for the loan, and Aref was brought into the arrangement.
The defense argued Aref was unaware this was anything other than a legitimate loan needing a witness. Pakistan protested the FBI’s sting, as it was based on a fictional plot to assassinate their ambassador.
After trial and sentencing, the Muslim Solidarity Committee (MSC) was formed in support of Aref, Hossain and their families.
Jeanne Finley, a supporter of Aref from the start, has been advocating for he and his family, and has involvement in the MSC, Project SALAM - formed in 2010 - and the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF).
According to Finley, then Attorney General and later FBI Director James Comey had said in 2004 when announcing the arrests, “No terrorism activity took place,” to which Finley has always subsequently countered, “Then why are these men in prison?”
Finley also stated The FOIA request resulted in evidence showing the FBI originally misidentified Aref as an Al Qaeda agent by the name of Mohammed Yasin. Yasin was assassinated in Gaza in 2010. This evidence was shown to the trial judge and an appeal court but not to the defense attorneys or jury at the trial. With this new and dramatic evidence, Aref and his attorneys are calling for a new trial or for the conviction to be overturned.