Dr. Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad gave a lecture Wednesday night entitled “Grand Jury Abuse in the Service of Islamophobia” as part of the Student Assembly’s Civil Liberties in Minority Communities lecture series.
“As-salaamu ‘alaikum,” Ahmad greeted the nearly packed lecture hall in Arabic, and many returned with the response, “Alaikum as-salaam.”
Ahmad is a renowned interdisciplinary scientist and is a professor at the University of Maryland. He works with the Minaret of Freedom Institute in Bethesda, Md., an organization dedicated to promoting understanding of how Islam and democratic ideals can co-exist.
Though he addressed broader issues of civil liberties violations against Muslims in America, Dr. Ahmad focused specifically on the abuse of grand jury powers by federal investigators. The Constitution establishes the grand jury as the only way a civilian can be tried for a serious crime.
“However,” Ahmad said, “the grand jury has not been limited to this function. Instead, it has become an investigative tool for prosecutors.”
He stressed the far-reaching power of grand jury trials.
“Once you have answered one question, they can ask you anything they want, and your refusal to answer can put you into deep trouble,” he said.
Comparing the current abuses of power 1950s McCarthyism, Ahmad gave several historical examples of how grand jury abuse has not only been used to coerce conspiracy or treason suspects into pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit but also to gather illicit information unrelated to the case about the personal lives of the suspect to leak to the press.
To illustrate how this abuse of grand jury power continues today, Ahmad used three case studies of Muslims in the U.S. who were indicted on charges of conspiracy in front of a grand jury.
“In a conspiracy, it is sufficient to prove that someone has discussed an illegal act then performed an otherwise legal ‘overt act’ in furtherance of the conspiracy,” Ahmad said.
He used “Paintball 11” as his first example. In this case, eleven young men from Virginia were accused of conspiracy to violate the Neutrality Act after allegedly discussing fighting for the cause of Kashmiri liberation against India and then participating in games of paintball, which prosecutors construed as “training” for future battles.
“But they didn’t just talk about fighting,” Ahmas said, emphasizing the absurdity of the charge. “They played paintball.”
Ahmad also discussed the cases of Abdul Hareem Ashqar and Sami Al-Arian, two Palestinians living in the U.S. who were accused of conspiracy for refusing to testify in front of a grand jury.
He included an example of his personal experience with grand jury abuse. Ahmad was subpoenaed to testify about a conference on U.S.-Iranian relations he hosted six years ago, which was open to the public and aired on CSPAN. He appealed the subpoena and was able to refuse to testify.
“It pays to know your rights if you get subpoenaed,” he said. “Don’t let [federal prosecutors] get away with anything.”
During a question and answer session afterward, most students focused on asking about the best way to end grand jury abuse and other civil liberty violations. Ahmad encouraged the audience to stay informed about these issues, and to stand up against injustice whenever possible.
“In numbers there is strength,” he said. “The more people willing to do this, the harder it is for the government to [take away their rights].”