The story of Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain is well known in the Capital Region. Arrested in 2004 in a dramatic FBI terrorism sting in downtown Albany, the men were accused of taking part in a plot to assassinate a Pakistani diplomat in New York City. Several years later, they were convicted of money laundering and terrorism-related charges and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Yet the arrests were controversial almost from the start, with friends and relatives insisting the two men were innocent and many coming to believe they were wrongfully prosecuted.
The long, strange and often surprising saga of Aref, a Kurdish refugee and imam at a Central Avenue mosque, and Hossain, a Bangladesh native who owned a nearby pizzeria, has been turned into a documentary titled “Witness.” The film will screen for free at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 14, at Proctors. It will be followed by a Q&A discussion moderated by Carl Strock, former columnist for The Daily Gazette, and featuring Masood Haque, director of “Witness,” Hossain, who returned home to Albany in 2020 following his release from prison and Stephen Downs, an attorney for Aref.
Even those well-versed in the twists and turns of the Aref/Hossain story will learn something from the film, said Strock, who wrote 45 columns criticizing the case and advocating for the two men. “I followed (the case) intensely,” Strock recalled. “I read all the legal documents, all the briefs, and there was a lot in this film I did not know.”
A decade in the-making, “Witness” is interesting and informative viewing, a tight mix of interviews, archival news footage and FBI audio and video recordings. It tells a tale that’s at once global and local, humanizing the complicated individuals behind the sensational headlines. Haque filmed many of the interviews featured in “Witness” years ago, then set the unfinished film aside and waited for Aref and Hossain to get out of prison so he could interview them. “I could not tell the story without the voices of these two men,” Haque said.
The post-incarceration footage is compelling – a highlight of a film that dedicates much of its running time to debunking the case against Aref and Hossain and placing their prosecution in the broader context of the post-9/11 zeal to root out terrorists. Haque traveled to northern Iraq to film Aref, who was deported in 2019, and spent time with Hossain at his home in Albany. These interviews are complemented by interviews with Hossain and Aref’s now-grown children, who describe the toll of arrest and imprisonment on their families. Also featured are a number of notable local figures, including Strock, Albany Times Union reporter Brendan Lyons and defense attorneys Terry Kindlon and Kevin Luibrand.
“Witness” opens with a quote from “The Trial” by Franz Kafka, and Haque cites director Orson Welles’ 1962 film adaptation of the famous novel, about a man named Josef K., who is arrested and never told why, as a key influence. “On September 11, 2001, many American Muslims could empathize with Josef K.’s plight,” Haque says in his director’s statement. “The ground beneath their feet had shifted. Extremists hijacked not only airplanes but Islam, and as a result the American public became suspicious and hostile to Muslims. As antipathy against them mounted, surveillance and entrapment of Muslims became a standard law enforcement practice.”
The documentary’s villain is Shahed Hussain, the undercover informant who befriended Aref and Hossain in 2003 and helped put them away. Using the alias Malik, Hussain offered Hossain, who was struggling financially, a $50,000 loan as part of a money-laundering scheme tied to the sale of a shoulder-fired missile to be used in a terrorist attack. Aref, who spoke little English, was brought in to witness the transaction per Muslim custom. But the plot was complete fiction – no terrorist attack was ever planned, no weapons ever sold — and critics decried the case as a classic example of entrapment. Other complaints concerned the use of secret evidence against the men and the lack of explanation as to why they were targeted in the first place. Neither had a criminal history.
More recently, Hussain gained notoriety for his ownership of the defective limousine involved in the devastating crash that killed 20 people in Schoharie County in 2018. The vehicle’s brakes failed while descending a steep hill, and the National Transportation Safety Board later found that the probable cause of the crash was the limousine company’s “egregious disregard for safety.” Hussain disappeared to his home country of Pakistan; his son, Nauman Hussain, pleaded guilty to 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide and was expected to be sentenced to four years of probation. However, a judge rejected the plea deal late last month, recommending a prison sentence of between 16 months and four years – a move that prompted the defense to withdraw their guilty plea. A trial date has been set for Oct. 31.
To supporters of Aref and Hossain, Hussain’s role in the limousine disaster was just further evidence of his duplicitous nature and the FBI’s error in judgment in deploying him as an informant. Just months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Hussain was arrested for helping immigrants obtain driver’s licenses by cheating on exams. Facing deportation, he began working for the FBI. Hussain’s story was one of the things that sparked Haque’s interest in the Aref/Hossain case. “I thought he was the most interesting character,” said Haque, who moved to the U.S. from Pakistan when he was in eighth grade. “He’s a morally compromised guy who’s surviving in this society and he has to survive by betraying other people. … That’s a terrible choice.”
Haque, who lives about two hours south of Albany, in the village of Suffern, is an emergency medicine doctor who works two days a week in an urgent care clinic – a schedule that allows him to pursue filmmaking in his off-hours. He learned about the Aref-Hossain case while making his prize-winning short documentary, “Stranger in Paradise,” about a Pakistani man, Ansar Mahmood, arrested in 2001 for taking pictures of a landscape near Hudson, New York – the view included a water treatment plant — and later deported.
The U.S. government has long maintained that the prosecution of Aref and Hossain was justified; in a 2012 interview with The Daily Gazette, former federal prosecutor William Pericak described their supporters as deluded. Strock was an early skeptic of the case, expressing doubt from the outset. “It sounded so flimsy, but I did keep my mind open to the possibility that these guys are bad news,” he said. “Very shortly, I dropped that – I just didn’t think they were.” Strock struck up a friendship with both men and regards Aref, who penned a memoir titled “Son of Mountains: My Life as a Kurd and a Terror Suspect” in prison, as one of the most impressive people he’s ever met. During one early encounter, when the columnist received a parking ticket while reporting on the case in Albany, Aref offered to pay it, saying he didn’t want anyone to suffer on his account because “it’s against my faith.” “It was really telling of what kind of a guy he was,” Strock said. Both Strock and Haque believe the Aref/Hossain case remains relevant today.
“This is an American narrative that repeats itself,” Haque said. “An event that had very little to do with the average Muslim American has dominated their existence for the past 20 years. In the heat of the moment, we feel the urge to point fingers and make certain groups scapegoats for whatever has gone wrong.”