Did the NYPD Entrap Ahmed Ferhani?
Ahmed Ferhani is a charming, funny, gregarious person who was dealt a complicated hand. He was raped by a teenage neighbor at the age of 7, when his family was still in Algeria. (“It’s cool—you can put that in your story,” he told me after sharing this. “I’m not ashamed.”) They moved to Queens in 1994 to escape the civil war ripping Algeria apart. His mom says he’s been bipolar since he was a teenager, though he’s never been properly diagnosed, and has been hospitalized on and off since then. Before the arrest, he smoked weed to self-medicate, saying that prescription pills make him feel hypnotized.
At home, Ahmed would act out: yelling, slamming cabinets, sometimes hitting his head against the wall. When his mother couldn’t control him, which was often, she called 911. These encounters ended with Ahmed in handcuffs more than ten times, according to his mom, and at least temporarily in police custody. The NYPD, to put it bluntly, is well aware of Ahmed’s psychiatric past.
Ahmed has a history of cutting himself and continued to do so at Rikers, though he says his girlfriend got him to quit. He showed me his left bicep, heavily scarred. He told me the cutting gave him a temporary sense of release, but he realized it “wasn’t normal.”
Raymond Brock-Murray, a therapist who specializes in providing counseling to Muslims, says that when it comes to people with psychiatric disorders, “ensnar[ing] them might be easier than it would be for someone who is a little more mentally stable.” Brock-Murray, who is Muslim, doesn’t know Ahmed and stressed that having a psychiatric disorder doesn’t preclude someone being a threat. The problem, he said, is how the NYPD then deals with those kinds of cases. He repeatedly stressed that if Muslims hear someone talking about violence, they should bring it to the attention of community leaders, because it could be a real threat—but also because it could be an undercover agent attempting to lure someone in.
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His warning is particularly relevant in light of revelations by the Associated Press that the NYPD’s intelligence division has spied on Muslims throughout the Northeast, infiltrating student groups and keeping tabs on mosques, bookstores and cafes. “I believe that many members of various organizations have a hard time trusting or believing anyone,” said Dima, the Al-Awda activist. “We all know that we are not doing anything wrong or illegal, but we understand that severity of having someone in a group who is trying to make you fall into a trap.”
The Manhattan district attorney’s office refused to comment on Ahmed’s case, and the mayor’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. The NYPD simply said, “We’re confident that the outcome of his case reflects both the severity of the threat and the integrity of the investigation.”
But advocates say the real threat is to the Constitution, and it is posed not by a wayward hustler like Ahmed Ferhani, but by powerful agencies that target people like him because of their name, religion or place of birth.
“There’s always a scapegoat in this country,” said Jen Waller, an activist who worked for Ahmed’s defense team and now considers him a friend. “The most important thing, as people of conscience, is to defend the scapegoat.”
At the end of our conversation at Rikers, Ferhani said he is working on his mental strength and praying every day. Prior to this ordeal, he wasn’t very religious at all.
“What’s funny,” he said, “is that if I had stayed on the path of righteousness, none of this would ever have happened.”
In a radical assault on the Fourth Amendment, the Supreme Court has ruled that clients of the ACLU—including The Nation and Nation contributors Naomi Klein and Chris Hedges—could not challenge the sweeping surveillance law known as the FISA Amendments Act. See Roane Carey’s item in this week’s “Noted.”