1993 World Trade Center bomber sues over prison faith rights

DENVER — A Muslim man serving a life sentence for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center wants a judge to determine that federal prison officials violated his religious rights by failing to provide meals strictly conforming to his beliefs and access to an imam of the same denomination.

The two-day civil case wrapped on Tuesday in a Denver federal courtroom. Judge R. Brooke Jackson did not immediately rule and is expected to issue a decision in writing.

Ahmad Ajaj was being held at a super-max prison in Colorado when the lawsuit began in 2015. Ajaj, represented by University of Denver law students, watched the trial via video because of security concerns.

Ajaj was sentenced in 1999 to more than 114 years in prison for his role in the blast in an underground parking garage on Feb. 26, 1993, that killed six people, one of them pregnant. It injured more than 1,000 and forced an estimated 50,000 to flee the trade center’s twin towers in a scene of smoke, fear and confusion that would be mirrored and magnified on Sept. 11, 2001.

Ajaj was moved to a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, early this year.

The lawsuit accused federal prison officials, particularly staff at the Administrative Maximum, or ADX, facility in Florence, of failing to provide food meeting Ajaj’s belief that all animals used for food must be fed, raised and slaughtered according to Islamic law. The lawsuit said Ajaj considered vegetarian and Kosher meals inadequate.

The lawsuit also said Ajaj went months without being visited by an imam, a term for an Islamic religious leader, contracted to counsel prisoners at the Colorado facility. Since moving to the Indiana facility, he began participating in a faith-based program that includes regular classes with an imam.

But the imam who works with Muslim inmates in the program belongs to another denomination of the faith. Ajaj’s attorneys argued that even listening to someone speak about views contrary to his own violate the inmate’s religious rights.

The lawsuit claims that both issues violate Ajaj’s rights under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The law, approved by Congress in 1993, was intended to limit the federal government’s ability to infringe on someone’s sincere religious beliefs.

Attorneys for the government argued that neither issue substantially limited Ajaj’s ability to practice his faith and did not violate the law.

According to Ajaj’s attorneys, the Indiana prison began providing meals he considers acceptable last week.

Jeffrey Cheeks, a business administrator at the Terre Haute facility, testified on Tuesday that he tried but could not find a vendor able to meet all of Ajaj’s conditions. Cheeks said he ordered three months’ worth of meals for Ajaj from an existing government supplier at the direction of the prison’s warden last week.

On Tuesday, Ajaj’s attorneys asked Jackson to order prison officials to continue providing those meals.

Jackson gave no firm sense of his leanings. But he was clearly frustrated by the quick fix that came days before the trial opened.

“Something that they couldn’t do, or wouldn’t do, for three years was done in 48 hours,” Jackson said to an attorney for the government. “Now, what confidence does that give the court that they won’t change it in the future?”

Jackson seemed less swayed by Ajaj’s attorneys’ request for a court order letting him participate in the Indiana prison’s faith-based program without attending the current imam’s classes. Jackson suggested that would give Ajaj preferential treatment over other inmates, who must attend classes with leaders of their own faith to stay in the program.

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