You could tell by the snipers on the roof and thick chain of deputies in the hallway that something big was supposed to be happening in Arapahoe County Courthouse Room 201.
Past the body scanner and bag checkers in the lobby, and past the makeshift security checkpoint outside the courtroom, Colorado’s favorite scapegoat was asking a judge to free him from a lifetime in prison and let him go home to Saudi Arabia.
Homaidan Al-Turki, a linguist from a prominent Saudi family, had lived in Aurora with his wife and five children and was well known in Denver’s Muslim community. After the September 11 terror attacks, the FBI spent years closely sniffing around his publishing company, which sold early Islamic sermons recorded by Al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Agents found no evidence of terrorist involvement. Al-Turki was ultimately prosecuted for allegedly kidnapping and sexually assaulting his Indonesian housekeeper.
Given the post-9/11 media hunger for criminal cases involving Arabs and Muslims, Al-Turki’s story made big headlines in Colorado and throughout the U.S. But the coverage was incomplete. What The Denver Post and other media left out of their reporting of his 2006 trial was that the jury rejected the housekeeper’s testimony that Al-Turki raped her and convicted him of lesser sexual contact offenses that typically are considered misdemeanors under Colorado law. He also was acquitted of kidnapping and convicted instead of misdemeanor false imprisonment. In Al-Turki’s case, the sexual conduct misdemeanors were elevated to a class-four felony because of a question on the verdict form that his lawyers argue was legally flawed. They’re filing an appeal of his conviction next month.
Had Al-Turki’s offenses been treated as misdemeanors, as such offenses typically are, he would have spent no more than two years in prison. Instead, he was handed an eight-year minimum sentence with an indefinite release date. For sex assault convicts who maintain their innocence — as he has all along — that generally means a life sentence.
American media, with The Denver Post leading the way, hyped the so-called “Saudi sex slavery” case in stories based on unnamed sources.[pullquote]“If they have something on him, let’s see it,” said Al-Turki attorney Hal Haddon. “Accuse him.”[/pullquote]
Meantime, outlets in the Muslim world framed the story as an example of rampant anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. Muslim journalists, intellectuals and civil rights advocates were incensed that prosecutors brought up the September 11 terror attacks at Al-Turki’s trial and that a mannequin with a chador (a woman’s full-body cloak) was placed in the courtroom during most of the trial in what critics saw as an overt attempt to convince the jury that Islam imprisons women. They also decried bias in news reporting of the case.
“From the beginning, this has been a witch hunt, a kangaroo court and a railroad job with the media in full participation,” said Imam Abdur-Rahim Ali of the Northeast Denver Islamic Center. “This is the worst form of journalism, yellow journalism, I’ve ever seen.”[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen Al-Turki went to prison after his conviction, Colorado’s corrections department classified him as a member of a “security threat group” – a gang – because he’s Muslim.
“In the environment that we’re in, a member of a religious faith” can bee seen as a gang member. “Those perceptions are out there,” testified Angel Medina, former warden of the Limon Correctional Facility, where Al-Turki has served most of his time.
Mohamed Jodeh of Aurora, a 30-year leader in the community who serves as a chaplain in the state prisons, shrugs with frustration about the prison system’s attitude toward Muslims, especially Al-Turki.
“Islam is a religion, not a threat group,” he said. “Despite the way they’ve treated him, I’m pretty sure it’s still not criminal to be a Muslim in the United States.”
According to prison evaluations, Al-Turki has had clean conduct since 2006 — other than the fact that he continues maintaining his innocence. Being a so-called denier makes him ineligible to participate in a sex-offender treatment program that requires prisoners to admit their guilt and poses other cultural and religious problems for Al-Turki in particular.
The so-called Abel Screen the state uses to evaluate sex offenders shows a long series of photographs of men, women and children in various states of dress and undress, many in sexually suggestive poses. Islam forbids men from looking at pictures of women who aren’t their wives. Islamic law mandates “lowering the gaze” when there is the potential for seeing people – or images of them – who are immodestly dressed. This includes pictures of Muslims and non-Muslims.
“Viewing these is contrary to the Salafi/Wahhabi Islamic law common in Saudi Arabia,” wrote Seth Ward, a near-eastern and religious studies scholar at the University of Wyoming who reviewed Colorado’s sex offender treatment program as an expert in the case.
What’s more, sex offender treatment groups in Colorado prisons expect inmates to divulge the most intimate details of their sexual histories. At least one female counselor or social worker typically leads the groups. Even if Al-Turki waived his Fifth Amendment rights and participated, doing so would violate the Islamic teachings forbidding men from talking about their sex lives – conversations that are tantamount to adultery. In Saudi Arabia, commingling of unrelated or unmarried men and women even without discussing sexuality is antithetical to religious and cultural norms.
Colorado’s program requires participants to answer questions such as “How often do you thing about sex during the day?” and “How often do you masturbate?” It makes them discuss these habits in group therapy, accept feedback from other prisoners and give feedback about fellow participants’ sexuality. The program, Ward wrote, is “embedded in U.S. and Western- style assumptions that in many cases have no traction in traditional Muslim societies.”
“Given the disconnect between the purpose of the program and the situation of a prisoner who will be denied reentry into U.S. society, it would therefore seem that there is no compelling, practical justification for a program that is so objectionable in Muslim law and practice,” Ward concluded “Mr. Al-Turki, an observant Muslim, could not participate without violating his religious beliefs and cultural norms.”
Al-Turki’s refusal to participate has, in effect, extended his eight-year minimum sentence to a lifetime in prison.[dropcap]S[/dropcap]o, under the Inter-American Convention on Serving Criminal Sentences Abroad, he sought to serve out his time with a transfer to a Saudi prison, where his wife and children could visit him. Corrections Department director Tom Clements agreed to the transfer at the urging of Al-Turki’s case manager, who called him “a model inmate,” and Medina, Al-Turki’s warden at the time who said he was low-risk and had an excellent prison record.
Critics in both state and federal law enforcement squawked when they heard of the pending transfer approval. According to a motion filed in the case, Jack Finlaw, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s chief legal counsel, told Al-Turki’s lawyers that he “was aware of a media campaign being orchestrated by members of law enforcement who did not accept Clements’ decision.” Just before the transfer paperwork was to be filed, Denver Post columnist Vincent Carroll wrote an editorial on March 8th entitled “Don’t let Al-Turki go free, Colorado,”
“This would be a miscarriage of justice if it were to take place,” Carroll quoted 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, “It doesn’t make sense that we’re going to cut a guy loose to go back to a country that doesn’t view this as a crime and doesn’t view our evidence as good enough.”
Clements reversed his decision and rejected Al-Turki’s transfer three days later.
Within days of that decision, Clements was murdered by a gunman at his front door in Monument.
Citing unnamed sources, several media outlets immediately reported that Al-Turki was being investigated in the Clements case. As the widely reported theory went, Al-Turki had placed a hit on Clements in retaliation for the decision not to grant his transfer.
Al-Turki was put in solitary confinement the day after the murder, even though his case manager had reported that he was not considered a managerial problem or a security threat. The reason, then-warden Medina testified, was that Al-Turki had gained notoriety because of the media speculation linking him to Clements’ murder.
Evan Ebel, the prime suspect in the crime, was killed in a shootout with Texas police days after Clements’ murder. Police swiftly verified that Ebel’s gun was the one used to kill Clements. They also learned that it was purchased before Clements denied Al-Turki’s transfer request. Ebel’s motive was clear: He had recently been released from about a decade in solitary confinement, even after formally warning Clements’ department that he was too dangerous and psychologically unprepared to walk free. His grievances went ignored by corrections officials.
The mainstream media glossed over the Ebel’s psychological problems and his plainly expressed anger at the prison system Clements headed and that he said had left him a broken person. But Ebel’s motive in the front-door execution-style shooting was obvious to police investigating the murder and to Clements’ top staffers and officials in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office.
Even as facts unfolded about Ebel, unnamed sources whispering in reporters’ ears kept advancing conspiracy theories about Al-Turki, no matter how transparently unlikely they seemed. The theory being advanced was that Al-Turki, the devout Muslim, had allied himself with Ebel, the 211 Crew white supremacist gang member, to kill Clements.
The Denver Post published a story that Al-Turki – who comes from far more wealth than most inmates – ordered several pizzas for fellow prisoners before Clements’ death. Though corrections officials said he was well within his spending limits, and though there was no evidence that the pizzas were for 211 Crew members, The Post’s insinuation was clear: That Al-Turki bought Clements’ assassination, at least in part, with pizza. Never in all the coverage was anyone quoted questioning the logic of the retaliation theory: Why Al-Turki, who desperately wants to go home, would have risked his chances of doing so by putting a hit on the corrections chief.
“I’ve never seen a local paper run such a racially charged story with nothing backing it up,” Imam Abdur-Rahim Ali said.[dropcap]G[/dropcap]iven the notoriety the news stories brought to Al-Turki, he was transferred out of Colorado’s state prison system to a federal prison in Tucson, Arizona. It was an unusual move that Al-Turki’s legal team, who now has much less access to their client, has challenged. The corrections department justifies the transfer on grounds that Al-Turki had so many enemies in Colorado prisons that he would be safer in the custody of the feds. The department incorrectly listed Al-Turki’s convictions to the Bureau of Prisons, causing him to be placed in a maximum rather than a minimum-security prison.
Ali says his longtime friend seems to have aged significantly since being banished to a prison that’s not just out of the state where he was convicted, but also run by the federal government, which has no jurisdiction over his case.
With his transfer to a Saudi prison denied, Al-Turki’s legal team now is seeking his release through probation on grounds that he has served his minimum eight-year sentence, and with good conduct. During the latest spate of court appearances in October – when authorities so conspicuously heightened security at the courthouse — Saudi physician Ahmed Al-Turki spoke emotionally to the judge about his brother, the graduations he couldn’t attend and a son’s wedding that he missed.
The Saudi ambassador to the U.S. has committed that, if Al-Turki is released to Saudi Arabia, the country would honor Colorado’s terms of probation and Al-Turki would have to undergo treatment for convicted sex offenders.
Prosecutor Ann Tomsic countered, among other arguments, that if Al-Turki were allowed to return to Saudi Arabia, he wouldn’t be available if criminal charges are ever filed in connection with Clements’ death.
While defense and prosecuting attorneys argued in court, The Denver Post hyped yet another accusation for which Al-Turki was never charged: “Imprisoned Saudi man accused of ordering hit on inmate,” read the Oct. 24 headline. It wasn’t until the 16th paragraph of the 22-paragraph article that the paper mentioned that the man who accused Al-Turki of threatening him in prison is mentally ill and that his complaint was deemed unfounded. In fact, during the time of the complaint, Al-Turki’s case manager described Al-Turki to be “report free” and commended “his positive behavior and willingness to work with staff and other inmates.”
“What we were provided with was not an investigation. It was a claim, an unfounded claim,” said Norm Mueller, one of Al-Turki’s team of lawyers paid by the Saudi Kingdom.
Months after investigators have put the Clements murder to rest, The Post’s Oct. 24 article slipped into its second paragraph that Al-Turki “has been considered a person of interest” in the case. On its editorial page and in its news coverage, the paper keeps repeating the accusation.
“If they have something on him, let’s see it. Accuse him,” attorney Hal Haddon, also representing Al-Turki, told the Independent.
“The way they handle him relates to things he was never charged with,” Ali added.[dropcap]A[/dropcap]rapahoe County District Judge J. Mark Hannen is expected to decide by the end of year whether to grant Al-Turki’s request for probation.
In the meantime, an international social media campaign is calling for Al-Turki’s release.
Of the dozens of Colorado Muslims who endured the courthouse’s extra security gauntlet set up specifically for the Al-Turki hearings, many said they had come not just because he spent years teaching Arabic in the community, nor because he supplied religious texts to Muslims who couldn’t afford them, nor because he helped improve a mosque in Boulder and funded grants to Coloradans to make the hajj to Mecca, nor because — whatever may or may not have happened with his housekeeper — they think he was targeted from the start for his Saudi connections. They came, they said, because standing behind Al-Turki is an act of solidarity for a community that has grown from 5,000 to 50,000 in the last 20 years.
“We’re here not only because he’s a friend, but also because he’s a victim of being Muslim – a victim of his tradition, his background – in a country that is eager to believe in conspiracies,” Jodeh said.
“First they investigated him (after) September 11 and then for the killing of the prison director. There has never been any evidence, never any eyewitnesses. You always have people in government, politics, looking to get a step up, elevate themselves. Hanging stuff on a Muslim may feel like they’re advancing their careers. And we’re here to say, he’s just a convenient scapegoat because of his religion.”
Added Ali: “We have to stand up when we have law enforcement gone amuck and media gone amuck. If we stay silent, it just gets worse.”