ADVERTISEMENT

Amina Farah Ali, at right in August, and Hawo Mohamed Hassan are accused of funneling money to a terrorist group.

Craig Lassig, Associated Press

Defendant in Somali terror case changes stance on standing

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH and ROSE FRENCH
  • Star Tribune s taff w riters
  • October 5, 2011 - 10:34 PM

Amina Farah Ali's defiant courtroom stand ended quietly Wednesday, but the debate over her actions is far from over.

For the first two days of her trial on terrorism-related charges, the Rochester woman refused to stand before U.S. Chief Judge Michael Davis, citing her Muslim beliefs. Her co-defendant, also a Muslim, did stand.

All that changed Wednesday. After two nights in jail for contempt, Ali rose to her feet as required.

The startling turn has turned an unexpected spotlight on the tensions between two key constitutional principles: freedom of religion and order in the court. Legal and religious experts could not recall a similar case. Even residents of Rochester's small Somali community were taken by surprise.

"We are kind of shocked, to be honest," said Sheiknor Qassim, a business owner and longtime Rochester resident.

"When she took her oath to become a citizen, she went through the same procedures she is going through right now. She stood up before a judge," he said.

Why, he asked, would she have a problem with it now?

Ali and Hawo Mohamed Hassan are accused of conspiring to send money to the terrorist group Al-Shabab to help finance violent fighting in Somalia. Ali is accused of sending more than $8,600.

In court earlier this week, Ali said softly but firmly that it would be wrong for her to stand, based on her interpretation of the hadith, or sayings of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Mohammed is said to have told followers who stood in his presence that they overhonored him.

Ali's interpretation of that, her lawyer said, was that she would only stand for God.

Through a translator, she had told Davis that she worried about her salvation. When the judge asked whether she had spoken to her husband lately, she told him, "I do know the religion. I don't need to ask him."

Even when three learned Somali elders tried to persuade her to give up her fight, she held firm.

She spent two nights in the Sherburne County jail, and she complained on Tuesday that she had been manhandled the night before when forced to trade her head-to-toe hijab for an orange jumpsuit -- an allegation that jail officials denied.

By Wednesday, Ali was facing 100 days in jail -- five days for each time she refused to stand. Her attorney can later ask Judge Davis to waive the contempt charges, a court spokeswoman said.

As a result of her decision now to stand, she was allowed to go home Wednesday evening with electronic monitoring.

Teaching vs. law

Abdulwahid Qalinle, a professor who teaches Islamic law and human rights at the University of Minnesota, said he is not aware of defendants of Muslim -- or other faith -- refusing to stand before a judge and jury for religious reasons.

However, he has heard of cases where Muslim women have objected to removing their head coverings in the courtroom or in correctional facilities.

Qalinle said he doesn't see anything in the Qur'an or other Islamic texts that support Ali's refusal.

"Generally there's nothing in the Qur'an or in the tradition of the prophet that specifically says that it is unlawful for a Muslim to stand up in courtroom in respect of a judge or court session," he said.

Of her refusal to stand in court, he said, "It may be politically motivated."

Bob Tuttle, professor of law and religion at George Washington University Law School, said he, too, has never heard of a case involving a Muslim defendant or a person of any other faith who refused to stand before a judge and jury for religious reasons. But he questioned the judge's action.

"If she were sanctioned with contempt for refusing to stand, in theory the government would have to show that it has a very important reason for wanting her to do this, assuming the invocation of her religious liberty is sincere," he said.

Tuttle added: "You can exercise some [religious rights] when you enter the courtroom. It depends on how substantially it interferes with the court's ordinary process."

ashah@startribune.com • 612-673-4488 rose.french@startribune.com • 612-673-4352

© 2014 Star Tribune