The Father, The Son, The Holy Ghost

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on Oct. 19th, 2005
Subject: John Akbar

A father fights for a retrial for a son sitting on military death row

First Place, Personalities, 2006,
Society of Professional Journalists, Western Washington Chapter

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John Akbar hadn’t seen his eldest son, Hasan, in 20 years. Then, one evening, he sat down to watch television.

Displayed on the screen was the image of a soldier, encircled by a cadre of military police. A newscaster clued in viewers to the name of the man caught in the center of the human fortress, but Akbar, 63, says he didn’t need to be informed of the identity of the person serving as the news item’s nucleus.

“ I knew my son,” remembers Akbar, “I knew it was him.”

Knew: the past tense. But what Akbar didn’t know about his son, the night he says God moved him to watch the television, caused his heart to plummet like a runaway elevator in his chest: Hasan, then of the 101st Airborne Division, stood accused of killing an Army captain and Air Force major, along with injuring 14 other fellow soldiers, in a grenade and rifle attack in Kuwait. The attack took place on March 23, 2003, just days after the U.S. invaded Iraq. Akbar says he caught the newscast, showing Hasan being shuttled under armed guard from a military facility in Fort Campbell, KY. to one in Fort Knox, in mid-Jan. 2004.

Akbar flew to Louisville. He made his way to Fort Knox, some 25 miles to the southwest. There, father and son reunited. “He’s smiling,” the senior Akbar recalls of their reunion, “I’m smiling. The bond was still there, you know. But the looming of death was there also.”

Hasan was soon to be court-martialed on three counts attempted premeditated murder and two counts of premeditated murder for the attack. A guilty conviction could lead to the death penalty. Eventually, he was transferred to Fort Bragg, NC for trial. On April 21 of this year, Hasan was convicted on all counts. One week later, he was sentenced to death. Shortly thereafter, he was moved to Fort Leavenworth to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, the site of the military’s death row.

At the crux of Sgt. Akbar’s defense was the issue of whether or not he was mentally competent at the time of the attack. His legal defense team tried to argue that the junior Akbar was not stable enough to have planned, then carried out, the events that occurred in the Kuwaiti desert. They claimed that Akbar, a Muslim, acted out of desperation, responding to his fellow soldiers’ “jokes” about raping Iraqi women.

But prosecutors had in their possession Akbar’s diary. Penning his thoughts on how utterances of raping fellow Muslims humiliated him, he wrote of his fellow soldiers, in an entry dated a month before the attack: “I am going to try to kill as many of them as possible.” Entries such as these, along with testimonies from some of the injured, led the 15-member jury to choose death for Akbar.

Knowing all this, as a father, has been difficult for the elder Akbar to bear. The situation becomes more difficult still given his ruminations about whether religion, which has been a pillar of strength throughout much of his life, may have laid the foundation for his son to commit murder.

John Akbar grew up in South Carolina in the ’40s, where he was known by the name of John Kools. In the South, the young Kools experienced the horrors of Jim Crow firsthand. At the age of seven, he saw a Black man lynched from a tree. “I had to go past that tree every morning to go to school,” he shudders to remember. The image lodged in his consciousness. “I couldn’t get it out of my focus.”

When he was 12, he moved to Detroit. From there, he continued hopscotching the country — to Miami to be with his mother, then to southern California in the late ’60s — all the while, the weight of racism weighing heavy on his bones. He met a woman. They married. They had a child, born Mark Fidel Kools. Through it all, Akbar says he was struggling to find his identity. He found it, surprisingly, in jail.

While imprisoned on a minor charge in Las Vegas, a fellow prisoner befriended him. “’You’re a Black man,’” he recalls being told, “‘You’re the God of the Universe. Don’t let the white man tell you you ain’t nothin’. He’s a liar, he’s a diabolical devil.’” Drawn in by the message that Black men deserved dignity and respect, Kools says he continued listening to his jail-mate, who himself was a member of the Nation of Islam. Galvanized by the rhetoric, Kools says he had little choice, in middle age, but to change his last name, to break free from what he was told was an undeniable shackle to slavery. John Kools became John X.

Released from jail, he went back to his family. He and his wife changed their surnames to Akbar. His son, Mark Fidel Kools, was renamed Hasan Karim Akbar. His name carried meaning: The Great Beautiful Law Keeper.

More children were born, two sons and a daughter. John Akbar was experiencing what it meant to love, he says, for the first time. But clouding this new life and identity was Akbar’s dawning realization that the Nation of Islam’s teachings, professing a godly Black man and a devilish white man, were infused with racism and hatred. “I just couldn’t believe that God made two separate types of people,” he says.

Then came an image whose ability to reawaken the past propelled him to an uncertain future: on a blackboard in a temple, someone had drawn a white man with a rope around his neck. Akbar’s memory of the lynched Black man he’d witnessed as a youth floated up in his mind. Akbar knew what he had to do.

He says he told his wife they had to forgo the teachings of the Nation of Islam’s leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhhamed, as he was preaching hatred. “That blew her mind,” he says of his wife. He says she told him she wouldn’t leave the Nation of Islam. Akbar told her he wouldn’t stay. “So she left and took my kids.”

Cut off from his family, Akbar’s life spiraled into an abyss. He went back to Las Vegas, finding desolation. He ventured to Houston, finding crack cocaine. Seven and half years were spent there, locked in addiction. With the need to find recovery, he says he looked to God. “Spirit told me: Go somewhere that you’ve never been before.” Akbar had a map of the U.S. He threw at dart at the country. The dart landed in Seattle. He moved here three years ago, to find himself. And, unbeknownst to him, his son.

Now, Akbar worries if the hate-filled teachings instilled in his son may have been the tiny seed that led to the attack. These latent teachings, he believes, were more than likely nurtured by the military itself. “He was no killer before he went into the army,” he proclaims.

The senior Akbar believes that if his son would have been placed in a different regiment in Iraq — one with Islamic or even Black soldiers — he wouldn’t be where he is today. Now, at the Disciplinary Barracks, Hasan is part of another group: those on the military’s death row. Of those inmates, five, including Hasan, are Black, one is of Asian descent, with the seventh being white.

As for the trial, Akbar says the defense team was ineffective, not calling on witnesses to speak on his son’s behalf, not having a Muslim serve as a jury member, and ignoring parts of Hasan’s diary that spoke to his struggles of faith at fighting fellow Muslims.

The elder Akbar hopes a new, more balanced trial may lead to Hasan’s release. He admits it’s only a hope. He knows his son committed murder, and his heart, he says, goes out to the families of Capt. John Seifert and Maj. Gregory Stone, who were killed. But still, he says he can’t give up trying to raise money to save his son.

The two have been writing letters, says Akbar, rebuilding their relationship. And he plans to visit Hasan at Fort Leavenworth on Oct. 25. He looks to the visit with equal parts joy and heartache. Knowing Hasan is slated to die at some unknown date by lethal injection, the senior Akbar can only put his faith in a higher power that his son will be retried and released. “If I could just see him on the streets one more time,” claims Akbar, “that would be my wish of Almighty God.”

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