Citizens International

The Sentencing of Ziyad Yaghi: “This Is Wrong! This Is Speech!”

By Melva Underbakke, Ph.D.


Ziyad Yaghi

Ziyad Yaghi was convicted in October 2011 of possibly committing some unspecified crime in an unknown place at an unspecified time in the future. The charge involved conspiracy, but testimony showed he was not involved in any conspiracy.

Despite the fact that he has not committed a crime—either now or in the past—he was sentenced to more than 31 years for something the government thinks he might do in the future. In order to justify this outrageous sentence, the judge asserted that since Yaghi was not involved in any conspiracy he must be a lone wolf—and this makes him even more dangerous!

Yaghi, now 25, was one of the Carolina Seven. We attended the trial on several occasions, and were there the day two of Daniel Boyd’s sons, Zakariya and Dylan, testified. From his sons’ testimony, it appears that Boyd (the “ringleader,” according to the FBI) went a little bit crazy after a close call with death (Hepatitis C) and after his son died in an accident. He sought solace in religion, specifically Islam, and he gradually became more and more radical, and more and more paranoid. At one time, apparently, Boyd viewed the concept of “jihad” as a personal “struggle” (as do most Muslims), but later came to see “jihad” as fighting against the enemies of Islam.

Daniel Boyd and his two sons were not on trial, however. They had all pled guilty to a variety of terrorism-related charges, in exchange for which most of the charges against them were dropped. They most likely believed the very high conviction rate meant that testifying against others was their best hope of reducing their jail time.

The three defendants being tried were Yaghi, Omar Hassan and Hysen Sherifi. Yaghi and Hassan are friends who traveled together to the Middle East, where Yaghi visited relatives. After returning to the United States, they were followed by the FBI for two years before they were arrested. Sherifi is a native of Kosovo who only wanted to return home to his wife and baby. All were charged with “Conspiracy to Maim and Murder People Overseas.”

There are many cases of pre-emptive prosecution around the country today, and this appears to be yet another. Evidence presented consisted of audio tapes recorded by a paid FBI informant who befriended the Boyds, and of the testimony of the father and his two sons.

Sherifi’s voice could be heard on the tapes, but Yaghi’s and Hassan’s were not. The only “evidence” against them came from testimony of the Boyds and the paid informant. They apparently were acquainted with the Boyds, but there was very little involvement. Yaghi had been friends with the younger Boyd son who was killed in the accident.

There is no evidence, or even allegations, of any kind of violent act by any of the defendants. Do we, today, charge people with “thought crimes”? Apparently so. Have we erased the First Amendment from our Constitution? Apparently so. Do we still have freedom of speech in the United States? Apparently not.

As an observer of the trial commented: “This is wrong! This is speech!”

Of the five Americans in this case—“Ringleader” Boyd, his sons Dylan and Zakariya, and Hassan and Yaghi—Yaghi received the longest sentence: 31 years—12 years longer than the ringleader’s. Why? Because he rejected a plea deal and refused to testify against the others.

Since his arrest, Yaghi has spent some two years in solitary confinement. As I write, he is being held in “administrative segregation” in a federal prison in Coleman, Florida, which means that he is alone in a small cell 23 hours a day. He won’t be allowed a telephone call for 90 days.

Melva Underbakke, Ph.D. is a founding member of Friends of Human Rights and director of the Education and Outreach Committee, National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.