On Sept. 3 Sherman Austin, the 20-year-old webmaster of RaiseTheFist.com, began a one-year-long prison term. He was arrested 20 months ago by federal officials for illegally distributing information on his website on how to build Molotov cocktails and “Drano bombs.” When he gets out of prison next year, he will be banned for three years from associating with anyone who wants to “change the government in any way.”
“I think this is more about just shutting down an effective website,” Austin said just hours before beginning his 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.”
The material in question was part of a 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.
In late 2002, federal prosecutors charged Austin under a 1997 law with distributing information on explosives with the intent that readers commit “a federal crime of violence.”
According to the tech news site CNet, Austin is the first person charged under this law. Supporters of Austin say 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. That’s what the person who authored this material did, got some free space on Sherman’s server, uploaded the material in question.”
But despite this, Chowkwanyun says the government has portrayed Sherman 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 FBI knew that someone else had authored this material… they actually interviewed the person who authored the material.”
Earlier this year Austin pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in jail and three years probation, despite recommendations from the Justice Department that Austin receive four months in jail. If he had not pleaded guilty he could have faced 20 years in prison under anti-terrorism provisions of the USA Patriot Act.
“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.”
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