Hi, I'm Jason Flem, you know me from my podcast, where I interview extraordinary people who've been on the wrong end of wrongful convictions. Now, welcome to my new series, Righteous Convictions, where I will speak with some of today's most prominent and active agents of change, people who see the wrong in the world and are driven to make it right. Our guest today is a Pakistani American attorney. And when her community was drawn in by the nexus of civil rights, national security, immigration law and a criminal case that was very close to home, she rose to those challenges and eventually changed how Muslim communities were policed.
When I was in law school and I was arrested and the 9/11 happened and these law enforcement trainings have been happening for homeland security, for the FBI, for local law enforcement, it was like a whole cottage industry had popped up with these people who were completely anti-Muslim bigots, had started doing law enforcement trainings. Now, with the podcasting empire that she built, she shines a light on wrongful convictions, including her great white whale, Adnan said, attorney, best selling author and host of undisclosed Rabia Chaudry right now on righteous convictions.
Welcome, everyone, to a brand new podcast called Righteous Convictions, and today I have with me a woman whose name you'll probably recognize, Rabia Chaudry. But what you may not know is that she has a rich history outside of the things she's most known for, which, of course, stemmed from Adnan Syed and the wrongful conviction that he is enduring to this day. And we'll touch on that. But I'm going to take a quick look at her CV here.
And we know best selling author, powerhouse podcast host. But before the fame of Serial, she was an immigration lawyer who started the Safe Nation Collaborative, which led countering violent extremism, or C, v, e, which is a training program for law enforcement. And we're going to get to all of that as well. But Bravia, thank you so much for being here with me on Righteous Convictions.
Oh, gosh. Jason, thank you so much. This is an honor to be here.
So I guess what I want to know is presumably you were just a normal teenager one day, right? And now you're you. So what happened in the intervening years?
Yeah, and I blame my mom for a lot of it. I'm the oldest of three kids and my parents were immigrants from Pakistan. And I was also born in Pakistan. I was an infant when my parents came here. I was raised here. My mom just had this thing where she was constantly telling me and my siblings that when you die, God is going to ask you, what did you do with the time I gave you the money I gave you, the education I gave you.
What do you do with all the blessings I gave you for the people? It was just an expectation that was drilled into us. And so for me, when I was in law school, this was like back in ninety seven, ninety eight. But when I was in law school and I was arrested and the 9/11 happened and people are really horrified by Trump's Muslim ban. But many people do not realize that George Bush from 9/11 implemented a policy that Muslim men from 27 Muslim countries had to report to ICE.
And many of them, when they did, they didn't return. So right in the wake of 9/11, I began practicing immigration law. I had no interest ever in practicing immigration law, but it was kind of a call of the community. It was the need of the community. And I was one of the very few Muslim American attorneys that I ever knew at the time. As the years went by, the policy of the law enforcement community, federal law enforcement and local just got worse and worse and worse towards American Muslims.
So there was a lot of reporting on 2008, 2009 that the NYPD was doing a mass surveillance. They had sent agents in to infiltrate the Muslim student associations at universities. So they spent like two years like camping with them and doing like bake sales and shit. And not a single terror investigation ever came out of it. No convictions came out of it. What they were doing was they were finding immigrants who were either undocumented or who were in the immigration process and there were Muslim and leaning on them and saying, listen, we want you to basically spy for us in your mosque or in your community, report back to us.
And they would terrify these poor immigrants and say, we're going to have you deported or we're going to have we just locked up in ice detention forever if you don't cooperate.
This sounds eerily similar to the story of Hamid Hayat, which was covered by Laura Nightrider and Steve Dreazen on our show False Confessions. Lodi, California, of course, 2005 five. The FBI started using an informant, Naseem Kahn, to spy on other members of his mosque and community. And eventually he delivers this poor kid, Hamid, who was just trying to impress this older guy who himself on behalf of the FBI was trying to get him or anyone to agree to say something, anything incriminating.
And then I started getting calls from people like that saying I don't know what to do. And so I began representing people against law enforcement, federal law enforcement during those kinds of investigations. And that's when I realized there was like a really deep seated problem, that this is like a posture that is being taken against all Muslims in this country. And I was trying to figure out why. And that answer became clear, I think in 2010 when there were a number of articles came out that reported these law enforcement trainings have been happening for homeland security, for the FBI, for local law enforcement.
It was like a whole cottage industry had popped up with these people who were complete anti-Muslim bigots, had started doing law enforcement trainings, and there was actually even audio somebody captured from one training that said basically any Muslim is a potential terrorist. That's how they're being trained and they're going out into our communities. And then I looked around and I said, is anybody doing any real training for law enforcement about a diversity center training? So I started the Safe Nation Collaborative, and it lasted for four years and I had to wrap it up because of a two month case.
Frankly, what is the Safe Nation collaborative?
Me and a team of trainers provided training to local law enforcement while we had one federal training. But we wanted to really basically build relationships between local Muslim communities and local law enforcement because they all live in the same community, have usually generally the same kind of local concerns. And so we bring them together. We do kind of a joint, you know, introduction training, because like the history of Muslims in America, this is like a belief system. If you go into a mosque, take off your shoes, very basic stuff.
And in the meantime, we wanted Muslims in the community not to be scared and be like, listen, you are paid public safety officers. We pay you with our taxes and we should have a say in how you deal with our community. And so that's what that was about. And then talking about the real homeland security threats, which even at that time the greatest threat to the homeland was white national supremacy. That was by FBI's own statistics. And we're seeing what happens today because it was never addressed in all these years.
It would literally just allow it to grow.
Yeah, and interesting timing for this conversation. When the head of the NYPD Diversity Initiative, however, that I don't remember exactly what they called it, but the guy who was supposed to be there promoting racial tolerance and equal opportunity on the NYPD was suspended after it was discovered that he had an alias online and that he was spewing homophobic, anti-Semitic, racist, anti basically everything except for white Christians or whatever the hell he is. And, you know, for the NYPD to actually suspend somebody, you know, it was serious.
But also it really brings into focus what you're talking about. And, of course, this is early, two thousand twenty one, these white supremacists that are trying to overthrow our democracy, we can't bring ourselves to call like a man who blows up a truck and half a building a terrorist because he was light.
I mean, like that's where we still are. We're just stuck in this space. And, you know, when Barack Obama was in the White House and a lot of these initiatives started coming out like countering violent extremism, just Qutb, which is like how do you basically counter, like, extremist and violent ideology in different communities? I had so many meetings at Department of Justice. I've been in the White House multiple times saying, why aren't you focusing on the threat of these white nationalist?
After Barack Obama was elected, these white nationalist groups exploded like fifteen hundred new groups popped up literally like in the two years after he was elected. So it's been a growing threat of these white supremacist militias and policymakers. None of the agencies, they just. Don't know what to do with it, they're like, well, there aren't a domestic terrorism laws, there's no framework around addressing a white problem, basically, because it's always been focused on like jihadi Muslims and like other kinds of terrorism.
And here we are. And nobody knows really what even to call them in the media. They stormed the Capitol. They're like, no, we're just we're just patriots.
I mean, it's crazy that it's gotten this bad. We're just making our voices heard while we kill police officers. And I'm still in a state of disbelief. You know, the idea that we spend 700 billion dollars on defense and yet they were just able to just literally waltz into the Capitol while the entire U.S. government was seated inside there. I mean, forget everyone's talking about the response. Had it been people of color and we know what that would have been.
But imagine if it was a foreign country that did it. So the sort of twist of fate or the synchronicity of you having grown up with Adnan, I mean, Adnan is the elephant in the room. And while I want to talk about your rich life outside of that particular case, you are obviously inextricably tied to the work that you did on his behalf. He was my younger brother, best friend. I was a lot older. I was in college at the time when I first met him.
And, you know, when he was 17 and arrested, I was married to a kid. I was in law school. I had a completely different life. So I knew him as well as anybody can know their kid, brother's friend. But I certainly didn't know anything about, like, you know, Woodlawn High School and who he's dating and what his like. I didn't even live in the same state, but we were family, friends. We did go to the same mosque.
So we all kind of knew each other from the community.
You know, I just watched the movie The Case against Adnan Syed. And let's just start from the place that there is no evidence against him. Right. So for anyone who's thinking, well, he might be guilty if you're a listener, you also might be guilty of this crime because there's no evidence against you and there's no evidence against him. It's just a terrible accident of history or fate or whatever you want to call it, that he dated. Hey, you know, sometime earlier.
And, you know, then the idea that the state just continues to spend our taxpayer dollars to persecute Adnan, even after it's been essentially proven that he didn't do it, when they realize they're wrong, they won't say we were wrong. We're going to drop everything that you usually offer. An Alford plea, which still requires the defendant to admit that the state has some level of evidence you could use to prove my guilt. What's happening with Adnan is actually really, really common.
And we see this over and over again. And, you know, we've done about 20 or 25 innocent cases with undisclosed you see the same thing, OK, they will fight tooth and nail to preserve a conviction.
I don't know how much of it is just sheer pride and like the institution protecting itself and how much of it is actually well, if they give in to this, that opens the door to other a couple of things, maybe civil liability, but also other defendants who might be like, hey, if you admit that on this issue you got this wrong, then that has an impact on my case. For example, in a man's case, his attorney did not contact the alibi witness at all.
And now two courts ruled that that was basically a failure of her duty to Adnan, that she didn't contact the alibi witness. The state court appealing that for the state. They wanted to say that, OK, we want to make sure any other defendant in which this happens doesn't also get another shot. And then finally, they want you watch the documentary in the very last episode, the documentary series, The Court of Appeals of Maryland, which is the Supreme Court basically of Maryland, just ruled three to four.
I think we lost by one judge saying that, OK, she didn't contact the alibi witness, but it wasn't prejudicial to Adnan that set such a dangerous precedent. Since that ruling, other courts across the country have denied defendants new trials based on Adnan's ruling, saying, well, a court has already ruled that just because you're lawyered didn't contact an alibi. It does not rise to the level of ineffective assistance of counsel.
Adnan was given the option to have four more years in prison after nineteen already, and then also to have to literally get up in court and say, I'm guilty. I did it right. That's not even an Alford plea. And Alford plea is bad enough. And he stood on the moral high ground and then by one freaking vote, four to three, when he's still in prison for the indefinite future. It's really sickening. And I have to say, Rob, in the movie, The Pod cast aside, and I'm guessing almost everyone who's listening to us now heard Serial.
But in the movie, you come across as just such a like a calming influence on everything.
Well, I don't think anybody just got me into what the thing is when I'm around a man's family, I do my best to be as tender with everything as I can because they're still traumatized and same with a gun. But I am propelled by a sense of rage constantly. Even 20 odd years later, I feel no tenderness of gentility towards anything that's happened. And sometimes I wonder, people have said maybe you need to tone it down a little bit, maybe don't tweet at the attorney general so much.
Maybe maybe that'll help. But you know what? That's bullshit. It doesn't help. It does not help none of these people when to sit back and be like, well, she's been kind of nice to us on Twitter. Let's release it, not say it's not going to happen. You got to fight. I think the harder you fight, they do fight back harder. But we have different motivations like, you know, we have personal attachments to anon when I say we need people who love him.
And so we're not like the state, we're not going to give up at some point.
So, Rob, are there any prospects for clemency for Adnan? We've got to get him home somehow. We have not explored it at all because the truth is, we've only had two issues have been litigated for like ten years now, which means there are so many other issues we haven't touched, including the fact that, for example, the DNA testing that was done in this case was so limited. The rape kit that was taken from the victim has never been DNA tested to this day.
So we have other options right now that we're looking at. I told Adnan when he said no to the. Deal. And then we lost I said to him, you know what, even with a plea, you were going to be in prison in four years. Give us those four years and we're going to find another way. How do you divide your time, because you wear a lot of different hats, like is it loose or are you structured in that sense?
Yeah, I mean, look, you know, people like look at my CV, it looks like it's a lot of different things. It's all very linear. The one thing led to another, led to another. And, you know, I had to wrap up Safe Nation and working with us instead of peace and like just working in the national security policy space because Serial exploded. And I realized at the time that serial is going to go away and people are going to move on.
And either I had to take advantage of the momentum or I could lose the momentum forever. We would never get another shot to build on this momentum. And so I decided to basically fold almost all my work and focus on one person on Adnan's case. And that turned into undisclosed, which brought many other defendants to us.
Now, that is my full time work at the Innocence Work Front, discloses my full time work, and of course, undisclosed has had a profound impact and has actually led to freedom for a number of people who have been featured on the show. Back to your work with the Safe Nation Collaborative. Which organizations do you think are doing the best work and how can people who are listening now get involved?
You know, I'll say this. A lot has changed since definition because the work of Safe Nation was to try to deal with the hands we were being dealt at the time, which was we went from George Bush to President Obama, who didn't want to approach these issues from a counterterror problem. You want to approach any of these issues from like, OK, what's happening in the community? Are these like vulnerable people? They marginalized? Are they being entrapped?
What's happening here? He wanted a more comprehensive approach, but I think so much has changed in that more people recognize where the problems actually are. And we threw billions of dollars in this war on terror. That still isn't ending for me. I really think, you know, Black Lives Matter as a movement. However, they are as an organization has made the biggest impact and showing where law enforcement is getting things wrong. Organizations like that, they're the canaries in the coal mine.
Like we have to listen to them about getting policing. Right, because at the end of the day, even like the safe nation stuff was about policing. So how do you get policing? Right. I think the ACLU has always been strong on that. There is some momentum towards police reform, but defund reform, it's it's such a big problem. I think one of the biggest issues we have with policing is that we have term policing into a profession that automatically draws a certain kind of people.
Right. Like there's some kind of people who go to social work or some kind of people who become chefs. Like, you know, personalities are drawn to certain professions. And we have turned the profession of policing into something that is violent and oppressive and rife with abuse. And it draws personalities who are looking for those kinds of opportunities. So we almost have to reimagine the entire profession of policing and hope the right people then are drawn to it. I don't know if that's like a direct answer to your question, but I don't know if there's one particular organization.
I think the ACLU has always done great work. I think every state has their own ACLU chapter. It's always important to check in with them, see what kind of usually what they need is money. But keep an eye on the legislation they're working on. And the changes happen really locally for our younger listeners.
Right, who want to get involved, who want to make a difference. People listening now, they go, I want to be her. You know, I want to have a life full of meaning and purpose. What would you say to someone? Just riff on that?
Look, you know, when I first started working in national security policy and kind of learning national security policy actually develops in D.C., I can't even begin to tell you how many rooms I was in with people who are developing policy that impacted communities that they didn't know anything about. So they would say, I think we should do X, Y, Z about this problem. And I and I would say, well, have you talked to those communities? Do you know what the response of the community?
No, absolutely not. And this is a big problem. And I and I see something similar happening, like in the social media space where a lot of young people want to do amazing work. They have very shallow knowledge of issues. They have almost zero experience on the ground. And I really urge people to build your expertise. You have to build a base of substantive work. I have a daughter, my eldest right now. She's doing her master's in cybersecurity.
She said to me, I want to do cybersecurity policy. I said, OK, that's great. But I think you should first figure out how it all works before you then want to go and develop policy around it. That's one bit of advice. The second about advice I say is pick one or two things. A lot of times people have hearts of advocate, and I know that's like you, Jason. And to me, like, you know, a lot of things hurt us, impact us, keep us awake.
You can't do it all. And if you try to do a lot of things, you're going to do none of them. Well, pick one or two things that you know that you can work on for years that you'll never get tired of because it will take years and decades to make any change.
Narrow your scope. But deep in your expertise on those issues, all I can really say is thank you for. For doing what? You're doing I know that it's taken a great deal of courage, you may not look at it that way, but we do see you from an outside perspective, know that it's true. And if there's anything else that you have left out, I'm just going to leave the mic on for you to say whatever is left to be said.
Well, I'll just say that we are going to be going back into court for Adnan's case. The story's not over. So please continue to follow in my second book to come out sometime this year. It's about nothing that I've ever talked about before publicly. It's a memoir of food, fight and family, which has been the bane of my distance for forty six years now. So I hope you guys check that out and I'm sure it will resonate with a lot of people.
And that's it. And Jason, you're one of my heroes, so thanks for all you do and thanks for having me on. Thank you for listening to Righteous Convictions. I'd like to thank our production team, Connor Hall, Jeff Clyburn and Kevin Ward as the music in this production was supplied by three time Oscar nominated composer J. Ralph, follow us on Instagram at wrongful conviction on Twitter at wrong conviction and on Facebook at wrongful conviction podcast. Righteous Convictions is a production of Lolla for good podcasts in association with single company number one.