Shaikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind Egyptian alim and leader of the Gama’a Al-Islamiyya who is being held in solitary confinement in a US jail on spurious terrorism charges, is gravely ill. His already failing health has deteriorated rapidly in the last few months. Shaikh Omar, who has diabetes as well as liver and heart disease, has lost feeling in his fingers ï and hence his ability to use the Braille system for reading ï and has been transferred to a prison near the famous Mayo Clinic.
The news of Shaikh Omar’s failing health comes shortly after a US federal judge ordered that an associate of his, Nasser Ahmed, an Egyptian who had worked as Shaikh Omar’s translator during his trial, should be released from jail and granted political asylum instead of being deported to Egypt.
Contrary to widespread rumours, however, Shaikh Omar is not paralysed, according to Ahmad Abdul Satar, his legal assistant and only contact with the outside world. Abdul Satar was quoted in the Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat as saying that the rumour is one of many routinely circulated about him as deliberate misinformation or to give him a bad name. He emphasised that reports that the Shaikh had married an American woman to obtain a green card were also false. The loss of feeling in his fingers, however, has been sufficient to put an end to his reading and writing activities, and Shaikh Omar has now stopped writing his memoirs.
The deterioration of Shaikh Omar’s health is so serious that the American authorities recently transferred him from his New York prison to one in Rochester, Minnesota, which is close to the Mayo Clinic, where the late king Hussain of Jordan was treated for cancer last October. According to Abdul Satar, the US government is anxious to convey the impression that it is doing its utmost to give the Shaikh the best available medical treatment. The Mayo Clinic has become widely known in the Arab world since King Hussain was treated there.
But Shaikh Omar is not a patient in the clinic but an inmate of a nearby prison, where he is still kept in solitary confinement and under a strict 24-hour electronic surveillance. The Rochester prison, being remote and on the border between US and Canada, in fact makes the Islamic campaigner even more isolated, though the solitary confinement he was kept in while in New York cell literally sealed him off from the rest of the world. This drastic confinement has had and continues to have serious adverse effects on his health, says Abdul Satar.
Shaikh Omar has been held in solitary confinement since 1993. He was convicted in 1995 of conspiring to blow up the World Trade centre and other New York landmarks, and sentenced to life imprisonment. The sentence followed a clearly bogus trial in which he and other Islamic activists were convicted on what even American human rights activists admit to be the thinnest of evidence.
But jailing the Shaikh was not enough for the US authorities, who have since pursued his associates and supporters. Among them was 38-year-old Nasser Ahmad, who had been kept in solitary confinement for the past three years, but was ordered released on July 30. Ahmad had been accused of being a follower of Shaikh Omar on the basis of secret evidence linking him to a ‘terrorist organization’. Judge Donn Livingstone, a federal immigration judge, ruled that Ahmad was not a threat to national security and should, in fact, be given political asylum in the US instead of being deported to Egypt.
However, Ahmad remains in detention pending an appeal by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service. He is one of at least 25 Muslims presently being held under the controversial Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which US Muslims, led by Imam Abdul Alim Musa of Masjid Al-Islam, Washington DC, are presently campaigning.
The unseemly speed with which the authorities appealed against Judge Livingstone’s ruling shows that the US authorities have not learnt any lesson from their debacle. Since Nasser will stay in detention pending a resolution of the appeal, that is good enough for their purposes. There are at least 24 other Muslims - ‘suspected terrorists’ as newspaper reports describe them - who are being held across the country on the basis of ‘secret evidence’.
Ahmad Abdul Satar explained that the Americans were trying to punish Nasser Ahmad for refusing to work as an informer for them in return for permanent residence. He categorically denied that Nasser was a member of the Islamic group and said he simply struck a chord with Shaikh Omar as any Muslim would with a dedicated Islamic alim.
Abdul-Satar is right in saying that many Muslims respond to the dedication and fearlessness of Islamic campaigners across national or group affiliations. This explains why Dr Omar’s plight is met with sympathy and anger by hundreds of thousands of Muslims throughout the world. Transferring him to a prison nearer the Mayo Clinic will not placate them. And should he die in US custody, as he himself has predicted he will do, the Muslims’ anger will be unlimited.
Muslimedia: August 16-31, 1999