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|The U.S. Government Wanted ‘To Make An Example Out of Me’: Young Webmaster Heads to Prison for Political Website
September 3, 2003—The 20 year-old Webmaster of a California-based site called raisethefist.com is to begin a yearlong prison term today. And when he gets out of prison next year, he will be banned from associating with anyone who wants to “change the government in any way.”
Sherman Austin was arrested over 18 months ago. Federal officials charged that Austin had illegally distributed information about how to build Molotov cocktails and "Drano bombs" on his web site.
He was charged under a 1997 law that made it illegal to publish such instructions with the intent that readers commit "a federal crime of violence."
“I think this is more about just shutting down an effective website,” Austin told the nationally syndicated radio and TV program Democracy Now! just hours before beginning his 1-year federal prison sentence. “[The government] is going after someone who is basically standing up and effectively making a voice for himself and other people over the Internet and using the Internet as a resource and a tool to get a message out.”
Austin describes his raisethefist.com site as an anarchist web page. It contains critiques of US foreign and domestic policies and encourages readers to post their own views, news and activist strategies. The material on the site that allegedly led to his arrest was part of an Internet tract called the "Reclaim Guide" that Austin didn't even author—but for which he had offered free hosting on his site. The guide included information on how to build primitive bombs, similar to other information openly available throughout the web.
On January 24, 2002, federal law enforcement agents raided Austin's Sherman Oaks, CA home and seized all his computers and other possessions. He described the raid:
“I was asleep at the time and my house was being surrounded by about 25 federal agents who were armed with submachine guns, shotguns, hand guns and my sister came in my room and woke me up and told me that there was a bunch of F.B.I.-looking cars and stuff like that parked up and down the streets,” Austin said. “And they were all focused in on the house so I basically got up and went to the front door and then two special agents came to the door and asked if I was Sherman Austin. And they pulled me outside and basically they showed me this 25-page warrant.
“All the federal agents came into the house and basically raided the whole house, searched every room, and basically went straight to my room and then dismantled the entire computer network that I was running that was running raisethefist.com,” Austin said. “They took every computer, downloaded all the information off each computer, and then loaded it into a big white truck. They also seized political literature, even protest signs.”
After being questioned by federal agents in California, Austin was released. He then went to participate in the mass protests in New York City against the World Economic Forum meetings in late January. As he participated in protests with thousands of others, Austin was again arrested, this time by New York police.
“When I went there, the Secret Service notified the New York police chief to pretty much, I guess, target me and arrest me,” Austin said. “I was just standing there, out of nowhere cops just rushed me and scooped up about 26 people. I was one of those 26 people.”
Austin says he was in the custody of the New York police department for about 30 hours until he was taken into a back room in handcuffs where he was interrogated by Secret Service and F.B.I. agents for three or four hours.
“I was asked over and over again if I was terrorist or involved in any terrorist organizations, who I had come to New York with, if I knew if there was any plan for any type of destruction in New York during the World Economic Forum events, and just stupid questions like that,” Austin said. “Then they said I wasn't going to leave jail until they searched my car so I just said, ‘forget it, I don't have anything to hide from you. There’s nothing illegal in my car.’ So I just signed over the keys and let them search my car.
“Then they left and five minutes later I was just basically released and I was standing in the courthouse for about 30 minutes waiting for a ride to come and pick me up and about four or five F.B.I. agents came into the courthouse and they said I was arrested for distributing information over the Internet about explosives.
“And they basically hurried me out of the courtroom, grabbed me by my neck, put me into this black S.U.V., and drove me to a federal building. Then I was taken to a maximum-security federal jail cell in lower Manhattan, put into a maximum-security, 24-hour lockdown jail cell. I was in the same cellblock as terrorists who were involved in the U.S.S. Cole bombing and the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya in Africa.
“A few days afterwards I had a bail hearing and my bail ended up getting denied because the government pretty much said I was a man on a mission and I drove 3,000 miles to New York to carry out my alleged plot and plans and on the way back I was going to blow up the Olympics. So they pretty much said I was a terrorist and a threat to the community. The judge denied me bail and I was set to be extradited back to California in custody of the marshals.”
In late 2002, federal prosecutors formally charged Austin with distributing information on explosives with the knowledge that some readers would use such information to commit a federal violent crime.
According to the tech news site CNet, Austin is the first person charged under this law, which has been criticized by First Amendment scholars. The law came into effect in 1997, after Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) added it onto a defense-spending bill. Supporters of Austin have repeatedly noted that similar information has long appeared on other websites and in libraries. There is even a mirror of raisethefist.com run by a computer science professor at the Carnegie Mellon University.
“[Sherman] did not author the material in question,” said Merlin Chowkwanyun, an investigative journalist who has closely monitored Austin’s case. “He had a website and he offered free space to basically anyone who asked for it. If an activist asked for free space, Sherman would grant them an account, which would allow them to upload whatever they wanted to that. And so that's what the person who authored this material did, got some free space on Sherman's server, uploaded the material in question. Sherman provided a link to that on his front page.”
Austin says, “All I had on my website was a link to another website that wasn't associated with my website. On that other website, there was information about protests and things like security culture, and a small portion of the website that was stuff about explosives.”
But despite this, Chowkwanyun says the government and some media outlets have portrayed Sherman Austin as the author of the material. “At a detention hearing in New York after [Sherman] was arrested, the prosecutor insinuates that he authored the material,” Chowkwanyun said. “Prior to saying that, he quotes from the bomb-making instructions. But the F.B.I. knew that someone else had authored this material. I have in my hand right now a little transcription that they did where they actually interviewed the person who authored the material and the person who authored the material admitted to them that he had done that.”
Chowkwanyun says the actual author was never arrested. “That person actually, from what I understand, is now in Oregon lounging around. He was never charged with anything.
“But even though the F.B.I. knew this, in the final statement that the prosecution made to the court on sentencing--both the defense and the prosecution issued sentencing positions--the prosecutor wrote that Sherman had authored the guide,” he said.
Earlier this year Austin pleaded guilty and was sentenced last month to a year in jail and then three years probation. If he had not pleaded guilty he could have faced 20 years in prison under anti-terrorism provisions of the USA Patriot Act.
“I wanted to go to trial,” said Austin. “But as I kept resisting the plea, we later found out that a terrorism enhancement was applicable to what I was being charged with. And what that is is, basically, if I were to go to trial and get convicted, the judge can add up to a potential 20 years on to my sentence. So now I would be facing a maximum of a potential 23, 24 years when I went to trial. So then I thought about it and I waited it out and I didn't feel like it was worth it…I didn't really want to martyr myself so I decided I was going to try to take a plea bargain.”
Despite recommendations from the FBI and Justice Department that Austin receive 4 months in jail and 4 months in community confinement, the judge sentenced him to a one-year sentence.
“We went back to court,” said Austin. “And the judge said, you know, ‘what kind of a message would four months in jail send to other revolutionaries?’ And he pretty much made it clear that he wanted to set an example out of me and again stated that he wanted to give me at least a year in prison.”
US Attorney Rodrigo Castro-Silva, who prosecuted the case refused to be interviewed by Democracy Now!.
Speaking on Democracy Now!, Austin’s mother, Jennifer Martin, said, “I have very deep feeling of sadness. I feel that my son was wrongly accused.”
Martin said: “We've been looking through the discovery, and it‚s so very clear to me that this is a case of entrapment, lies, the F.B.I. setting things up, changing things, twisting around, using words and terminology out of context and people just not being aware of the fact that these things are being done. And I really want to get the message out to activists or just people who are politically active out there, regardless of what communities they‚re in, to be very, very careful and to look at this case, to understand it, and to educate themselves about the law—about the law that's being used to put my son in prison.”
After he is released, Austin will be on probation for three years. As part of the requirements of his probation, Austin will be barred from “associating with any person or group that seeks to change the government in any way be that environmental, social justice, political, economic, etc.”
“That's the ridiculous thing about that,” says Austin. “I mean, how are they going to determine, I can't associate myself with even maybe the Democratic Party or something like that?”
Information on Sherman Austin’s case is available on la.indymedia.org and at raisethefist.com.