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Pakistani American Attorney and Activist Could Face Life in Prison for Vandalism

Pakistani American Attorney and Activist Could Face Life in Prison for Vandalism

  • Urooj Rahman and her friend are accused of allegedly throwing a Molotov cocktail at an empty police car

Two promising lawyers of color could face a minimum of 45 years in prison for vandalism and destruction of property charges. Urooj Rahman, 31, a Pakistani American, and Colinford King Mattis, 32, an African American, were arrested on May 30 in New York City, during protests against racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd. 

The two are accused of throwing a Molotov cocktail at an empty police car in Brooklyn, and are charged on seven counts each including use of explosives, arson and arson conspiracy. They currently detained at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. 

Rahman and Mattis were in the latter’s mini van as they pulled over near the 88th police precinct in Brooklyn. Citing prosecutors who saw footage captured on a surveillance video, the New York Times reported that Rahman “stepped out of the passenger seat and threw a Molotov cocktail through the broken window of an empty police car, setting the dashboard on fire.” No one was injured.

The Times report further said that inside the van, “the police also found a Bud Light beer bottle filled with toilet paper, a liquid believed to be gasoline and a lighter.” She is said to have tried offering Molotov cocktails to other protesters so they could throw them.

Urooj Rahman following her arrest.

In a separate incident, Samantha Shader, who allegedly threw a Molotov cocktail at a police car with four officers inside in Brooklyn on May 30 was indicted on the same charges. No one was injured in that incident, either. 

Rahman went to Fordham Law and is a staff attorney at Bronx Legal Services, helping low-income clients fight evictions in housing court. Mattis is a corporate lawyer educated at Princeton and NYU Law. He was an associate with Pryor Cashman’s Corporate Group, but reports that Mattis “was furloughed in April as part of the firm’s austerity measures against the pandemic.”

Both  Rahman and Mattis grew up in Brooklyn and are said to be deeply connected to their communities. Rahman is the primary caretaker for her elderly mother, while Mattis is raising three foster children. Rahman’s father died in 2012.

On June 1, both Rahman and Mattis were released on a $250,000 bond by two lower court judges. However, they were sent back to the detention center a few days later after the government appealed. 

On June 5, a three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit revoked their bond arguing that both Rahman and Mattis were a continued threat to society.  The Huffington Post reports that two of the three judges on the panel — Michael H. Park and Judge William J. Nardini — were appointed by President Trump. 

Swept Up in the Moment

Rahman is represented by  Paul Shechtman, and Sabrina P. Shroff is Mattis’ lawyer. Shechtman told The New York Times after the June 1 hearing that his client’s actions on May 30 were lawless and stupid. “This was two people swept up in the moment,” he told the paper. “But it is two people with no history of violence, no criminal history at all.”

Zachary Carter, former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, told the Gothamist that while “a potential life sentence may sound unduly harsh for a crime in which no one was hurt, especially since Rahman and Mattis have no prior criminal record  and good legal careers,” the fact that their “alleged target” was a vehicle of law enforcement, makes it a federal case. “It is because it is a police car that is operated by a jurisdiction that receives federal funding,” he said. 

Activists and lawyers are decrying the harsh judgement, and believe that Rahman and Mattis should not be waiting in prison for their trial. Contrary to prosecution’s argument in court, they believe that the two are not a threat to society, or that they are a flight risk or will commit another crime.

The Bronx Legal Services, in a Facebook post, supported and defended Rahman. “We believe that the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) aggressive efforts to jail and prosecute Urooj and Colin are a gross overreach of federal law enforcement power and an attempt to stifle and delegitimize dissent against police brutality,” the statement read. “These aggressive tactics are politically motivated and are an attempt to make an example out of Urooj and Colin for alleged acts in which no one was harmed,” it said.

“Since her arrest, certain media coverage about Urooj has unfairly focused on her Muslim faith and Pakistani origin with shameful anti-Muslim and xenophobic connotations. The implications of this narrative are irrelevant, unacceptable, and inconsistent with her faith, compassion for others, and exemplary moral character.”

“Since her arrest, certain media coverage about Urooj has unfairly focused on her Muslim faith and Pakistani origin with shameful anti-Muslim and xenophobic connotations.”

The Huffington Post reports that several law students from NYU as well as Fordham Law School and the Legal Services Staff Association union, wrote to express their concern with the federal government’s aggressive charges and pursuit of pretrial detention. 

According to a CNN report, Rahman and Collin met in October 2014 at a joint birthday party at (Le) Poisson Rouge in New York City. The two “quickly hit it off” with each other, the CNN report says. “Both raised in Brooklyn, the two bonded over their professional interest in human rights and their engagement in local politics, becoming friends from there on.”

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Friends told CNN that Mattis and Rahman “are lifelong social justice advocates with deep interests in civil rights and police reform.” However, they said “neither displayed signs that they might engage in the sort of violent outburst of which they are accused.”

A GoFundMe campaign by Shagufta Rahman describes Rahman as “a human rights lawyer and activist who has spent her legal career protecting the rights of refugees around the world and citizens here at home.” Calling Rahman “a loving and caring daughter, sister, aunt, friend, and community member,” it says “her love and passion for her community are being muddled by misinformation.” 

Rahman was born in Pakistan and came to the U.S. at age 6. She grew up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood with a large population of Muslim immigrants. When her neighborhood was subjected to police surveillance post 9/11. 

Her law school friends told the New York Times that she criticized the policing in her neighborhood. In 2014, she co-authored a paper titled, “Changing the NYPD: A Progressive Blueprint for Sweeping Reform.”

At Fordham, Rahman is said to have developed an interest in refugee rights and international human rights. She won a fellowship to work as a lawyer in Turkey, where she helped asylum-seekers in Istanbul, and then did similar work in Cairo for a group called Saint Andrew’s Refugee Services.

During her time at Fordham Law, she co-directed an LGBTQI human rights defender training in Cape Town, South Africa and contributed to a shadow report on behalf of Afro-Colombian women submitted to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD).

When she returned to New York, she got involved in local politics, becoming policy director for the 2017 mayoral campaign by activist and police reform advocate Robert Gangi. 

Rahman spent the last year representing low income New Yorkers facing eviction, according to information of the GoFundMe page.

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