DENVER — A man convicted of a 1998 terrorist strike on the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania has won the right to sue the federal government over tight restrictions on his visitors and letter-writing at the federal Supermax prison in southern Colorado.
Khalfan Khamis Mohammed, serving a life sentence at the high-security prison, says the restrictions violate his civil rights.
Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Denver, said Wednesday he could not comment on the ruling.
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In a handwritten filing in 2008 in Denver District Court, Mohammed said the special administrative measures that allow restrictions on federal prisoners were "in violation of the First Amendment rights, equal protection rights, cruel and unusual punishment."
Representing himself, the Tanzanian man also complained that he was barred from watching religious programming on Arabic television, even though Christian prisoners had access to their spiritual leaders.
In her ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger said the federal government failed to show that the people with whom Mohammed wants to communicate pose a threat to the security of the prison or the public.
As of January, 43 federal inmates were subject to restrictions, 27 of them at the Colorado prison, but it was unclear how many other inmates would be affected by the ruling. It was also unclear if the ruling would apply to captured terror suspects being held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The judge rejected other complaints, ruling Mohammed could not prove he has been deprived of adequate food, clothing, shelter, medical care or safety.
Mohammed was arrested by South African authorities in 1999 for submitting false documents to obtain political asylum and was interviewed by the FBI, which claimed Mohammed admitted taking part in the attack. He was arrested and convicted in 2001 on charges he took part in the bombing and later was transferred to the Colorado prison.
The federal government argued it is monitoring 20 inmates and has limited resources because many of the communications need to be translated, a claim the judge rejected.
"Simply because there is insufficient manpower to screen all mail coming into a prison does not entitle the prison to select particular inmates who cannot receive mail, or to limit the people with whom the inmates may communicate," Krieger noted.
Daniel Manville, a Michigan State University law professor, said the ruling sets a precedent for another case in the 10th Circuit involving Mohamed Al-'Owhali, who was sentenced to life for taking part in an embassy attack in Nairobi.
Manville said Al-'Owhali was originally allowed to write letters and meet people, but those rights were later taken away. Al-'Owhali's motion for First Amendment rights was rejected.
Manville said the government could still win the case if it can prove at trial that either defendant engaged in terrorist acts while in prison.
"If they're talking jihad, yes, they can restrict it," Manville said.
Other inmates have challenged conditions at Supermax with mixed success. Convicted Oklahoma City bombing co-conspirator Terry Nichols last year lost his challenge over his prison diet. Representing himself, he had argued that a lack of unrefined grains, fresh food and insoluble fiber violated his right of freedom on religion and the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
In August of 2007, Mark Jordan, a man convicted of bank robbery and killing a federal inmate, challenged the prison's prohibition on publishing articles under a byline. Krieger ruled in that case that "there is no logical connection between the blanket restriction on outgoing news media correspondence and prison security."
While those two cases illustrate challenges to prison conditions, former federal prosecutor Laurie Levenson said the Mohammed case marks one of the first instances where an inmate is successful in gaining the right to challenge the additional restrictions known as special administrative measures. Levenson, now a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said judges usually give "blind deference'" to the government on the reasons for the additional restrictions.
"It's not enough to point the finger and say he's a terrorist," Levenson said. "Something more is needed."
Federal prosecutors said Mohammed remains a danger to the community because he played a crucial role in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy that killed or injured nearly 100 people.
"When it was over, (Mohammed) expressed his regret that more Americans had not died," prosecutors told the court.
Prosecutors said Mohammed has not shown the restrictions are irrational, "given that he is a convicted al-Qaida terrorist whose actions culminated in a successful strike against the United States."
Colorado's Supermax prison – short for "super-maximum security" – holds some of the country's most notorious criminals. They include Unabomber Theodore "Ted" Kaczynski and Eric Robert Rudolph, who bombed a park during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Associated Press writer P. Solomon Banda also contributed to this report.
You can reach P. Solomon Banda at: http://twitter.com/psbanda
___Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com