Albany, New York: On Wednesday, January 6, 2016, relatives and supporters of the Fort Dix Five held a vigil outside the US Courthouse in Camden, NJ during the appeal hearing of Albanian Americans Eljvir, Dritan, and Shain Duka. A higher court ordered this hearing to determine whether the Duka brothers received a fair trial and effective representation from their lawyers. The Duka brothers, who were convicted of plotting to 'kill U.S. soldiers' at Fort Dix, NJ insisted they were barred from testifying at their 2008 terrorism trial and asked a judge to throw out their life sentences.
The issue of law enforcement entrapment of suspects on terrorism charges is now back in the spotlight. The vigil called attention to the outrageous government entrapment of the Duka brothers, which destroyed their families, including six children, as well as the family roofing business on which the Duka brothers and their parents depended for support. The U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case was Chris Christie, now governor of New Jersey and candidate for U.S. president.
The case has been cited by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate, as one of the two "biggest terrorism cases in the world" during his time as US Attorney. But critics believe FBI informants entrapped the men and say the sentence reflects overzealous efforts to protect the country after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
US District Judge Robert Kugler, who presided at trial, will rule after reviewing written briefs due next month. This is the boys' last chance of being spared the life sentences as they exhausted their appeals when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their case. They have been in prison since May 2007.
According to Project Salam, the group was "convicted in 2008 of conspiracy to attack Fort Dix, even though no plans had been made to attack anything... Thus the Duka brothers were convicted for essentially vacationing while Muslim and given life sentences plus 33 years for a plot they literally had never heard of."
What happened was that in January 2006, the young men videotaped themselves target shooting at a public shooting range and shouting, "Allahu Akbar!" They brought their Pocono vacation videotape to a Circuit City store clerk for duplication for their families. The clerk, feeling "troubled" by the images of the young men horsing around, sent it to the FBI.
"The FBI responded by sending two agents provocateur to entrap the Duka brothers in criminal activity. The agents showered attention on them and used money and manipulation to try to create interest in jihad. They asked the men to download jihadist videos, taunted them for their lack of resolve to take action, and followed them around with hidden tape recorders to record every word spoken. One agent talked alone in general terms with a relative of the brothers, Mohammed Shnewer, about how one might theoretically attack the Fort Dix army base. In response to the agent's repeated demands, another defendant, Serdar Tatar, gave the agent a map of the Fort Dix base, which his father had used to deliver pizza there. (Tatar thought that the agent was suspicious and reported him to law enforcement, who said not to worry about it.) The other agent then persuaded the Duka brothers to buy some guns, supposedly for more target shooting in the Poconos, so they would not have to wait in line at public shooting ranges."
The three immigrant brothers "hoped to tell the jury they bought assault weapons from an FBI informant for target practice, not to harm anyone," writes Maryclaire Dale for Associated Press.
Defense attorneys at trial claimed the men may have made anti-American statements but had no plans to attack anything. Paid informant Mahmoud Omar infiltrated the group and spent months goading them.
"The Duka brothers assert in court papers that they never agreed to kill soldiers at the Burlington County military base, that incriminating statements made in secretly taped conversations were not meant to be taken seriously and that the primary advocate for a terrorist action was an FBI informant. Two of the brothers also contend an attempt to buy illegal weapons, including machine guns, was meant for recreational purposes," reports Jim Walsh in the Courier-Post.
It is a case that has been called one of the biggest terrorism prosecutions of Islamic radicals but now also perhaps among the most criticized post-9/11 entrapment examples, reports Al Jazeera.
"The fact that the court granted a hearing in this case is unusual and suggests maybe the court is troubled by the outcome. The outcome is clearly unjust. So we're hoping that this is a signal that the court would like to take another look at the case," said Steve Downs, a civil liberties attorney in Albany, New York.