Accused al Qaeda supporter James Ujaama was clearly glad to see his mom, Peggi Thompson, when she made her regular visit to the SeaTac Federal Detention Center on Sunday, December 8. "When Sunday came around," Ujaama told her, "I knew you'd be there."
Ujaama's mother--a stoic Christian who always manages to conjure up a wobbly Charlie Brown-style smile, but little else, for the press--is the only family member who has been allowed to visit Ujaama since September. Her 36-year-old son was arrested in the feds' post-September 11 dragnet last July on suspicion that he was involved in a plot to set up a terrorist training camp in rural Oregon. Ujaama, who gained a glowing local reputation in the early '90s as an advocate of black entrepreneurship, moved to London in the late '90s after converting to Islam. While in London, Ujaama evidently became closely associated with radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza.
Things have been harsh for Ujaama at SeaTac. His lawyers have had to battle for adequate lines of communication with their client and have repeatedly protested the prison's draconian measures--shackles, dog-pen cages, freezing and cramped cell conditions, and limited phone call rights.
But the latest affront to Ujaama isn't so much physical intimidation or legal wrangling as it is a direct infringement on Ujaama's fundamental First Amendment rights. According to a story Ujaama relayed to his mom during her December 8 visit, Ujaama was disciplined for praying.
Reportedly, Ujaama was praying in his cell with a sheet partially hanging in front of him--something he'd been allowed to do previously. A prison guard told Ujaama to remove the sheet because Ujaama had to be visible at all times. ("He said he could be easily viewed going up and down--you know how they pray," Thompson reports.) Ujaama told the guard the sheet would come down after he finished praying, which it did.
However, the guard, who Thompson says has raised issues with Ujaama's praying before, wasn't happy. The guard issued Ujaama an infraction--60 days without commissary--for not following orders. Two months without commissary is not such a big deal, according to Ujaama's mother, but she's outraged at the idea of a guard wielding heavy-handed power--handing out punishments--simply because her son was praying.
"How... can our government, under any circumstance, take away this right or dictate how we will practice our religion?" Thompson asks.
The guard's move (remember, Ujaama could clearly be seen over the sheet, and was visible to the guard at all times) does seem like petty intimidation. And this plays into exactly what I've said before: The feds are interested in wearing Ujaama down, to get him to cop a plea bargain--helping the government go after its real quarry, Abu Hamza.
(It's not clear exactly what the sheet was for, although Muslim practice does call for someone who's praying to place objects--like a chair or a book--in front of themselves so no one steps in front of the line of prayer.)
A spokesperson for the SeaTac Federal Detention Center did not return several calls.