08/26/2015 08:52 EDT | Updated 08/26/2016 05:59 EDT

Muhanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, Former Winnipeg Student Accused Of Terrorism, Held Under 'Barbaric' Conditions: Lawyer

A former Winnipeg student currently in a New York City jail awaiting trial on terrorism charges is being held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day under treatment his lawyer calls "barbaric," but the U.S. attorney general calls necessary.

Muhanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, a U.S. citizen who was studying at the University of Manitoba eight years ago, was charged last April with conspiracy to support al-Qaeda efforts to carry out attacks in the United States.

In court documents filed in New York on Tuesday, the U.S. attorney general requested special administrative measures be imposed on Al Farekh while he's detained in New York.

In a letter to the court, Al Farekh's lawyer Sean Maher wrote his client "is being held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, is severely limited in his access to counsel, is prevented from speaking with close family, is denied access to religious texts indispensable to the practice of his religion and is prohibited from praying communally."

Maher wrote 23-hours a day of solitary confinement poses a grave risk to Al Farekh's mental and physical well-being.

'Government's barbaric treatment'

"If Mr. Al Farekh has a nervous breakdown or loses his mental or emotional balance, it will be a direct result of the government's barbaric treatment of him," Maher wrote.

He cited a United Nations policy identifying long-term solitary confinement as a form of torture.

The defence lawyer served notice he intends to challenge the constitutionality of the restrictions on Al Farekh, "particularly those that impose a year-long period of solitary confinement and other forms of isolation, that severely curtail the attorney-client relationship, and that eviscerate Mr. Al Farekh's right to practice his religion."

Maher argued his client had been detained at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York for more than four months without incident before the imposition of the restrictions and so there is no justification for them.

However, the attorney general's memo said the restrictions are necessary.

'Proclivity for violence'

"Based upon information provided to me regarding al-Farekh's proclivity for violence, I find that there is substantial risk that his communications or contacts with persons could result in death or serious bodily injury" to people, or substantial property damage, the memo said.

Al Farekh is alleged to have conspired with others to provide "material support," specifically "personnel to be used in support of efforts to kill American citizens and members of the U.S. military abroad," the U.S. Department of Justice said last April.

Authorities said he travelled to Pakistan from Canada to train with al-Qaeda. He made his first court appearance in New York in April after being deported from Pakistan to the U.S.

The restrictions against Al Farekh limit his access to the mail, the media, the telephone and visitors and will be in effect for one year, unless the attorney general directs otherwise.

Memo defends restrictions

The memo said the restrictions on attorney-client privileged communications and family contact "are reasonably necessary to prevent the inmate from committing, soliciting, or conspiring to commit additional criminal activity."

Restrictions on mail privileges are necessary to prevent Al Farekh from "receiving or passing along critically timed messages," the memo said.

Al Farekh is also prohibited from contact with the media to "ensure that the media is not used to communicate information that furthers terrorist, violent and/or criminal activities."

If convicted on the charges, which have yet to be proved in court, he faces a maximum sentence of 15 years imprisonment.

Winnipeg human rights lawyer Corey Shefman called the restrictions listed in the memo very serious.

"The idea that a person could be kept in solitary confinement — which, let's not kid ourselves, is a small box — for 23 hours a day, seven days a week indefinitely is horrifying," Shefman told CBC News. "We're turning that famous guarantee 'innocent until proven guilty' on its head, and that's what's happening to the individual at issue here. 

"He hasn't been proven guilty of any crime, and yet, he is being subjected to one of the harshest forms of punishment at our disposal in the western world."

A spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the U.S., Edmond Ross, said inmates who have a connection to terrorism are managed through reasonable, lawful and decisive controls to ensure they do not continue terrorism-related activities while incarcerated.

While not directly addressing Al Farekh's case, Ross said the bureau works to "disrupt efforts by extremist and terrorist inmates to radicalize or recruit other inmates to violence."