Aakash Dalal's mug shot
In March of 2012, a 19-year-old named Aakash Dalal was arrested in connection with the fire bombings of two synagogues in Bergen County, New Jersey. A rabbi and his family were sleeping in one synagogue when a Molotov cocktail was lobbed through the window, though they escaped unhurt. Dalal was charged, along with his 19-year-old co-defendant Anthony Graziano, with conspiracy, arson, bias intimidation (essentially another term for a hate crime) and several other charges.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, the two young men are the first people to be charged under the New Jersey Domestic Security Preparedness Act, an anti-terrorism law passed shortly after 9/11, and Aakash and Anthony face the prospect of spending the rest of their lives in prison
Anthony is accused of throwing the Molotov cocktails, while Aakash was supposedly the brains behind the operation – last month the case’s prosecutor, John Molinelli, released text message transcripts that show Aakash telling Anthony that he wanted the second attack to cause “serious damage. Or total burnage”.
Two years after Aakash's arrest, his family remains in shock. The Indian American was born in New Jersey to a pair of first-generation Indian immigrants. He was the tennis team captain at his high school and won second place at a science competition; by the time he was in college at Rutgers University he was interested in libertarian politics and became the president of the campus chapter of Young Americans for Liberty. He also worked on Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign, and his attorney claims he was in New Hampshire trying to get Paul elected when the attacks occurred.
All of the above is pretty much undisputed, but Aakash’s treatment since his arrest has raised all kinds of questions about how defendants – especially those on trial for particularly heinous crimes – are treated by the criminal justice system.
To begin with, though Aakash has yet to be convicted of anything, he’s spent two years in solitary confinement. He's allowed three hours of “general exercise” in the prison yard a day, and the rest of his time is spent in a six-foot by eight-foot cell. Initially his bail was set at $2.5 million (€1.8 million), but it got bumped up to $4 million (€2.8 million) after a fellow inmate – described by Aakash’s supporters as a gang member and an illegal immigrant – claimed that Aakash was plotting to kill Bergen County assistant prosecutor Martin Delaney.
Aakash has also been accused of planning an attack on an elementary school, based on some blueprints found by investigators, but there was confusion about whether that was true, and according to a website set up by Aakash’s supporters “upon further investigation, it was discovered that [the blueprints] belonged to a construction company [and had] nothing to do with Aakash”. More bizarrely, prosecutors have claimed that Aakash has travelled to North Korea, Ukraine and Yemen to receive training as a terrorist, an allegation his family dismisses as being utterly ridiculous. They maintain he only left the US once, when he was nine, to visit family in India.
“We as a peaceful Hindu family never imagined that our son would be accused of all these things. For now, we would really like for the trial to start, so he doesn’t get tortured,” Aakash’s father Adarsh told me.
He said he hopes Aakash won’t suffer too many long-term effects from living in solitary confinement, and added that his son thinks that the purpose of keeping him isolated was “to torture him and coerce him to admit something that he has not done… [Aakash thinks the] excessive bail was imposed to prevent him from mounting a defence”. In addition, Adarsh said, Aakash “feels that his rights are violated to the extreme. He feels that his liberty as an American citizen born in USA has been taken away”.
The family has been devastated socially, financially and emotionally, Aakash’s mother Harsha told me, and she is extremely frustrated with the cops and prosecutors who have put her in this situation. “What parent would have any faith or hope in any judicial system that does not even check basic facts, whether my son was even in New Jersey as they first [alleged]?” she said.
Aakash’s treatment by the court system has been denounced by many in the local Indian-American community. Ankur Vaidya, the president of the nonprofit Federation of Indian Associations, supports Aakash mainly because of what his parents are going through. “They are first-generation immigrants,” he told me. “They are trying to live the American dream here, and all of a sudden there’s a downfall of catastrophic proportions. It’s any parent’s worst nightmare.”
Like Aakash’s other supporters, Ankur isn’t focusing on the question of Aakash's guilt or innocence. He simply wants the young man to see a trial so his parents won’t be in limbo anymore. “We are not here to judge whether he did it or how he did it, if he was involved or not,” he said. “That is up to the judicial system to decide. We are just saying give him a fair, fast trial… and give him an opportunity to come out and face what he has done or not done. If he did it, OK, fine. Then punish him to the proper proportions.”
Hiren Gandhi, a local community activist, echoed Ankur’s concerns. “We are not asking they prove Aakash innocent,” he said. “All we are asking is for them to give him a fair and speedy trial.” Hiren told me that if Aakash did have a part in the firebombing, that would make him more of a troubled American teen than a terrorist.
Aakash’s case calls into question where we draw the line between ordinary criminals – or troubled teens – and terrorists. Encouraging someone to burn down synagogues is a heinous act, but is it necessary to keep him in solitary while he’s awaiting trial? Is he such a nefarious villain that he needs to be isolated from society and the rest of the jail even though he hasn’t been convicted of anything yet?
And though the public is naturally outraged by the burning down of the synagogues, Aakash’s family and community are outraged by the way he’s been confined, isolated and demonised in the media without being convicted of a crime. As Adarsh told me, “I never imagined that a teenager can be treated this way in United States of America.”
Gina Tron is the features editor for Ladygunn magazine and the creative director for Williamsburg Fashion Weekend. She is currently in the process of completing a book. Follow her on Twitter.