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Muslim groups decry ‘excessive’ prosecution of lawyers charged with torching police car

(RNS) – Thousands of organizations and individuals have signed onto statements in support of the minority lawyers, who face possible life sentences over charges of setting fire to an empty police vehicle.

FILE- In this May 30, 2020 combination of booking photos provided by the United States Attorney's Office of the Eastern District of New York, Colinford Mattis, left, and Urooj Rahman, both Brooklyn attorneys, are shown after they were arrested for allegedly firebombing a police vehicle in New York. Dozens of former prosecutors are questioning the government's handling of a case against the two lawyers on charges that could put them in prison for nearly 50 years for torching the empty New York City police vehicle in May 2020. (U.S. Attorney's Office via AP, File)

(RNS) — Dozens of Muslim rights groups have joined a chorus of support for two Brooklyn human rights attorneys facing possible life sentences over charges of torching an empty police vehicle.

Lawyers Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis stand accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail through the broken window of an abandoned police cruiser during Brooklyn racial justice protests on May 30. The device burned part of the empty cruiser’s dashboard, prosecutors allege. Nobody was injured during the incident.

“No rational human being can ever believe that hurling firebombs at police officers and vehicles is justified,” Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said.

The two have both pleaded not guilty to several arson and federal explosives charges. If convicted, they face a 45-year mandatory minimum sentence, with the possibility of life in prison. The attorneys are being held without bail at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center.

In a statement, a coalition of 35 Muslim, South Asian and Arab civil rights and advocacy groups argue the treatment is disproportionately harsh and likely linked in part to the lawyers’ racial and ethnic backgrounds. Rahman, 31, is a Pakistani American Muslim woman. Mattis, 32, is the son of Jamaican immigrants.

“These excessive charges targeting Colin and Urooj set a dangerous precedent, and function to instill fear and stifle protest by Black, South Asian, and Muslim protestors at a moment where millions take to the streets worldwide to demand justice,” the statement reads. “This prosecution is also rooted in a longstanding history of anti-Black racism and structural Islamophobia in the United States.”

The coalition, led by the American Muslim Bar Association, Believers Bail Out and Justice For Muslims Collective, claims the pair is being targeted “for their solidarity with those murdered by state violence.”

The advocates cite the U.S. government’s efforts to push for the maximum sentencing through federal charges, as well as the “extraordinary step” of revoking both lawyers’ bail after two federal judges initially released the pair on bail.

“This case lays bare the violence inflicted upon individuals incarcerated before their trial, and how the practice is weaponized against defendants by separating them from their support networks and placing pressure on them to accept guilty pleas,” the groups said. “We know that if this test-case continues unopposed, it will be weaponized against others who protest state violence, particularly those from Black and brown communities.”

New York City’s Legal Services Staff Association said in a public letter supporting the pair that Rahman has received threats due to her faith. 

“Since her arrest, certain media coverage about Urooj has unfairly focused on her Muslim faith and Pakistani origin with shameful anti-Muslim and xenophobic connotations,” the organization, a union for law professionals, wrote. “The implications of this narrative are irrelevant, unacceptable, and inconsistent with her faith, compassion for others, and exemplary moral character.”

Rahman, who worked for Bronx Legal Services assisting low-income tenants in housing court, has worked to support migrants and refugees as well as advocating against the over-policing of minorities in New York. In particular, she was vocal against over-surveillance of Muslim communities after 9/11.

She is one of two Muslim activists receiving national support after being arrested during anti-police brutality protests. In Miami, an 18-year-old volunteer medic named Alaa Massri was arrested and made to remove her hijab for a booking photo, which has been disseminated and published by news media.

RELATED: After arrest, teenage Muslim protester and volunteer medic made to remove hijab for booking photo

The Muslim groups advocating for charges to be withdrawn are joining a loud chorus of support and concern from legal experts, health professionals and activists alike.

Hundreds of supporters dialed into a phone conference for Rahman’s arraignment on Monday morning (June 29). As the virtual arraignment — interrupted by near-constant beeps as participants joined — ended, enthusiastic supporters stayed on the line for minutes calling out their support for Rahman. “Love you, Urooj,” countless voices repeated. “We’re praying for you every day, Urooj!” another said.

Another letter, signed by civil rights organizations including the Muslim Bar Association of New York and CUNY School of Law’s CLEAR Project, condemned the “excessive and politically-motivated charges” as well as the “aggressive efforts” to keep them detained pre-trial.

“As legal, advocacy and policy organizations with long histories of supporting movements for justice, we are well aware that, particularly at the tipping points of social transformation, the state will deploy maximum force to undermine momentum,” the groups wrote. “The federal government’s cruel and unnecessary effort to keep Colin and Urooj in prison pre-trial, and potentially for the rest of their natural lives, is an approach guided by a political agenda rather than by law.”

More than 50 former federal prosecutors have submitted an amicus brief urging the federal appeals court to dismiss the government’s detention bid, arguing it “contradicts” settled bail law.

Over 1,500 healthcare professionals signed a letter demanding the lawyers’ immediate release from detention at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center, where dozens of employees have previously tested positive for the coronavirus. Detainees there have recently filed a class action lawsuit against the federal facility, alleging unconstitutional confinement conditions during the outbreak. 

And more than 1,400 people affiliated with Mattis’ and Rahman’s alma maters, Fordham and New York University, signed separate letters supporting the pair.

“The federal government should not be allowed to use this prosecution as a weapon to silence the voices that are calling for the change that this country desperately needs,” members of NYU’s law community wrote.