Ahmed Ferhani, who is halfway through a 10-year sentence in a rare state-level terror case, is in a medically induced coma after trying to hang himself in New York’s Attica prison, according to his lawyers.
“He was neither protected nor acknowledged” in prison, lawyer Lamis Deek said, calling Ferhani’s treatment “an outrage.”
The state Corrections Department would say only that Ferhani, 31, has been taken from Attica to an outside hospital and officials were investigating, though the agency wouldn’t say what was being investigated. Deek said a Buffalo hospital informed Ferhani’s family April 7 of what had happened, but details are unclear.
Ferhani’s suicide attempt is a somber afterword to a case freighted with the rise of homegrown terrorists, the legal legacy of Sept. 11, complaints about police tactics and questions about his mental health.
While most terror cases are handled by federal prosecutors, New York created its own anti-terror law days after 9/11. It had been used only once – against a gang leader who, appeals courts concluded, wasn’t truly a terrorist – before Ferhani and a co-defendant were arrested in May 2011.
An undercover investigator recorded Ferhani, an Algerian who came to the U.S. as a child, disparaging Jews and talking about attacking synagogues in retaliation for what he saw as the mistreatment of Muslims worldwide. Then Ferhani bought guns, ammunition and an inert grenade in a police sting.
The case showed “the threat of terrorism from these lone-wolf radicals is real,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. once said.
But officials faced questions about why federal authorities had declined to pursue the case.
Police said there was no doubt about its strength. But Ferhani’s lawyers accused investigators of entrapping a mentally ill man – hospitalized at least two dozen times before his arrest – to justify extensive surveillance of Muslim communities, a program illuminated in stories by The Associated Press. The New York Police Department has since disbanded a unit at the heart of the program but still uses informants and undercovers to hunt for terror threats.
A grand jury rebuffed a top terror conspiracy charge but indicted Ferhani and his co-defendant on other terror and hate crime charges with the potential for 32 years in prison.
Ferhani pleaded guilty in December 2012, in exchange for 10 years. At his sentencing, he said he’d “use this time to strengthen my mind and character.”
Ferhani and his lawyers say guards at Attica and another prison beat and taunted him because of his terror conviction. One attack left him needing 12 staples in his head, he said in a letter to The Nation, which first reported his suicide attempt.
Ferhani also recently wrote to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, saying he’d kill himself if guards’ abuse continued, Deek said. The Department of Justice couldn’t immediately say what became of Ferhani’s letters.
He wasn’t on suicide watch when he tried to take his life, though Ferhani has made prior attempts and has been on suicide watch before, Deek said.
Prison disciplinary records show Ferhani was assigned March 14 to 30 days of “keeplock” -confinement in his cell – for using an unspecified drug. Corrections Department policy calls for not imposing such punishment on inmates if it’s known that they are threatening to harm themselves.
The agency wouldn’t discuss Ferhani’s circumstances, citing its investigation.