Stories of the "Disappeared"

Revolutionary Worker #1133, January 6, 2002, posted at

"Now the government can--simply by saying the words September 11--keep somebody locked up indefinitely without proof."

Attorney Michael Boyle

"Whatever happened to the whole debate over racial profiling? It's like it's flown out the window. There's a lot of racial profiling going on these days, and it's wrong. It was wrong before September 11, and it's still wrong."

A student from Portland, Oregon,
quoted in the New York Times

"I thought America was the land of freedom and democracy but now I question it."

Ali, Lebanese immigrant

Imagine a country with secret military tribunals that can sentence people to death. Where one government official--the president--decides who will be tried in these military tribunals. Where people are arrested for the color of their skin, their nationality, their religious or political beliefs--and disappear after they are taken away. Where court hearings are held in secret. Where attorneys can't find their clients or are not allowed regular visits or phone contact. Where police listen in on attorney-client conversations. Where gag orders bar defense attorneys from disclosing their clients' names.

This is the United States at the start of 2002.

Since September 11 over 1,200 immigrant men--according to news reports--have been rounded up by law enforcement authorities. While George Bush posed for the cameras and read to Muslim children during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, law enforcement officials continued to round up immigrants across the country--most of them Arab and Muslim people.

Close to 600 people are reportedly still in prison. The exact numbers are not known, since the government has refused to release the names and nationalities of most of the individuals detained and the charges against them. Only a few have been actually charged in connection with the September 11 attacks. About 55 are being held on federal criminal charges unrelated to September 11. Others are being held on immigration violations.

It's clear the government continues to detain more people. At the end of November, the Justice Department announced that they had put together a list of 5,000 people who would be approached for "voluntary questioning." (See accompanying article.) About the same time, John Ashcroft announced the "Responsible Cooperators Program" which promises immigrants visas and green cards in return for informing on others.

Arab and Muslim communities across the country are under siege. Anyone who looks or acts "suspicious" is a potential target of this government dragnet. People have been arrested because their names are similar to one of the September hijackers or because one of their relatives is a "suspect."

The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has demanded that college and university officials hand over the names of students whose visas have expired or who may have committed other infractions. Many schools have complied with this operation, but some schools have refused to hand over names. On December 12, immigration officials swept up 10 people in San Diego for alleged violations of their student visas. Students from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Yemen were targeted.

More than 40 Arab immigrants from Mauritania were arrested in Kentucky after a neighbor called in a "tip" to the FBI that one of them looked like a September 11 hijacker. Most were released the next day. Four were held for over a month--one because of a false "tip" that he had gone to flight school.

Caught in the Dragnet

"On Day 1, it's military tribunals. On day 2, it's this list of 5,000. Day 3, no confidential conversations with lawyers. And on Day 4, you're rousting them out of bed for administrative violations."

A university official quoted
in the New York Times

Syed Gul Mohammed Shah and Mohammed Jaweed Azmath, both from India, were arrested on September 12 while they were on their way by Amtrak to find work in San Antonio, Texas. The authorities considered the two immigrants "prime suspects" simply because they were traveling with box cutters, hair dye and $5,500 in cash. They were held for three months without being charged with a crime. The Justice Department finally admitted that Shah and Azmath have no connection to the September 11 attacks. So they charged the two with credit card fraud for failure to pay a past due bill.

Sheik Dib Aneef Shihadeh from Jordan was invited by the Islamic Community Center in Chicago to lead a Ramadan celebration. He was arrested by the INS in Illinois and charged with an immigration violation. His $15,000 bond was revoked when immigration officials claimed they had "received more information."

The government justifies these outrageous arrests and detentions as necessary measures to "prevent further terrorist attacks." But the lives of thousands of immigrants are being uprooted and destroyed. Jobs and homes have been lost and families torn apart.

Dr. Arif Khan, who graduated from Yale and is a U.S. citizen, was questioned by FBI agents who said they received a report that he traveled to Saudi Arabia recently. An Egyptian man--who was arrested after September 11 but never charged with a crime--was charged with violating the terms of his visa by taking a job pumping gas. He was deported after 11 weeks in prison.

Pakistani immigrant Mohammad Mubeen was arrested because he got his driver's license renewed 20 minutes before hijacker Mohamed Atta got a license at the same motor vehicles office in Florida. Law enforcement authorities simply decided, erroneously, that the two were together.

Moroccan immigrant Issam Sadak learned English and enrolled in business classes at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. He and Jennifer DeMarco had just gotten married when law enforcement agents arrested Sadak on November 18. He is being detained for overstaying his tourist visa--even though he was in the process of applying for legal residency.

Egyptian immigrant Osama Elfar worked as an airplane mechanic in St. Louis and had gone to flight school in Florida five years earlier. His apartment was searched, phone bills and a computer were seized and he was arrested. His visa had expired and a judge granted him a voluntary departure--which meant he could return to the U.S. at a later date. He was held for weeks and finally went on a hunger strike before he was sent back home.

Mohammed Khan came to the U.S. from Pakistan, applied for political asylum and eventually became the manager of an electronics store in Brooklyn. In October he was arrested by seven FBI agents at his Long Island home. Unable to connect Khan to the September 11 attacks, the FBI turned him over to the INS, which charged him with a visa violation. Khan is appealing his denial of political asylum. His wife and children were left with no income and forced to sell their belongings to survive. His wife Shaheen Khan is worried for her three children--ages 10, 8, and 4--who were all born in the U.S.

Muslim charities in the U.S. have come under intense attack. Organizations that provide basic necessities like food and medicine for impoverished Muslims in countries such as Kosovo, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Palestine and Pakistan have been raided, shut down and had their assets frozen. Large charity funds run by companies like Fidelity Investments, Charles Schwab and Vanguard Group placed Muslim charities on "watch lists" after September 11. These corporations said they would no longer donate until they were sure the charities were not connected to "terrorists." Fidelity added four groups to its "watch list" based solely on news reports.

On December 14, the FBI raided the offices of the Global Relief Foundation and arrested its cofounder Rabih Haddad at his home. Haddad had an expired tourist visa--but he had a pending application for permanent residence. Haddad is well-known and respected in the Arab community in Dearborn, Michigan. There have been protests against his detention, including one involving hundreds of people outside a closed-door INS hearing

Authorities have provided only vague "evidence" of why the charities were targeted. In every case but one, the authorities have refused to say which groups the charities were allegedly connected to. Officials did claim the Holy Land Foundation funnels money to the Palestinian fundamentalist group Hamas. The FBI's evidence of this alleged connection was a conversation between a Hamas leader and Holy Land officials that occurred in 1993.

Brutality and Denial of Basic Rights

"It is one thing to keep the details of an investigation secret...but it is another thing to lock up human beings and refuse to tell the public why they are locked up."

David Cole, Center for Constitutional Rights,
professor at Georgetown University

"The Department of Justice has launched what appears to be an extensive program of preventive detention. Although certainly not on the same scale or scope as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War 2, this is the first large-scale detention of a group of people based on country of origin or ancestry since that shameful episode, for which our government formally apologized and paid reparations."

Nadine Strossen, President of the
American Civil Liberties Union

As lawyers have gained access to clients and some of the prisoners have been released, more has been learned about what happened to the people after their arrests. The detainees face brutal conditions. Many are denied basic rights such as phone calls and legal counsel. No overseas phone calls to families are allowed--even collect calls. Some people are held in solitary confinement. Others are moved from prison to prison across the country while their lawyers try to track them down. Hundreds have been held indefinitely without charges. Some have been kept imprisoned even after judges have ordered their release. Human Rights Watch and other organizations that are usually allowed to visit detainees to check for rights abuses have been denied access to the prisoners.

Prisoners report they have been stripped, beaten, blindfolded and deprived of sleep. Muslim religious practices have been ignored. One European diplomat told the New York Times that when he went to visit a detainee from his country, the man was in chains and they were forced to talk through bulletproof glass. The detainee had not been charged with any crime.

Yazeed Al-Salmi is a 23-year-old college student from Saudi Arabia who was arrested and held for 17 days without being charged with anything. His lawyer was finally was allowed to visit him. The lawyer told the press that he saw "bruises on his upper body, upper arm, back of his neck, welts on his wrists and ankles"--the results of beatings by guards. Osama Awadallah, a man born in Jordan who is now a permanent resident of the U.S., was held for three months during which time he was kicked and beaten. Monir Gondal, a Pakistani prisoner, had heart trouble but was only given something for muscle pain.

One prisoner died as a result of his treatment under detention. Mohammed Rafiq Butt was a 55-year-old Pakistani man who came to New York to work in order to support his children in Pakistan. He was arrested when neighbors called in a "tip" to the FBI. Butt was never charged with a crime but was held on a visa violation. He died in a New Jersey jail in October. Other prisoners told Butt's relatives that he had complained of chest pains for two days but officials refused to take him to the hospital. INS officials claimed Butt had a heart attack--yet he had no prior heart condition. The INS refused to release information about his death to Human Rights Watch--immigration officials told the group they must produce a document signed by Butt consenting to release the information!

At first the FBI refused to return Butt's body to his family in Pakistan. When they finally did, an autopsy was performed. Butt's cousin, Aziz Butt, told the media the autopsy report showed marks "suggesting he had been subjected to severe torture before his death. The report found multiple fractures in his cousin's legs and chest, as well as deep bruises on the body."

The U.S. government has violated international agreements by not notifying other governments--including those who are part of the U.S.'s international coalition--that their citizens are being detained. Foreign diplomats have lodged official protests because they can't locate people from their countries who have been arrested. The Turkish ambassador complained to the New York Times: "I can't talk to any of the detainees without this coming up. They say, 'We are helping the U.S. in its war on terrorism and this is what we get in return?'" The chief of the UN Human Rights Commission announced she had "serious concern" that the U.S. government was committing human rights violations.

First They Came For....

"[T]o those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists."

Attorney General Ashcroft during testimony
before the Senate Judiciary Committee

"In Germany, first they came for the communists and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me--and by that time no one was left to speak up."

Pastor Martin Niemoller

As some of the truth of the unjust detention and cruel treatment becomes known, there has been growing opposition. Demonstrations around the country have opposed attacks against immigrants, including a protest of 200 people recently in Dearborn, Michigan, a city with a large Arab population. Civil rights and human rights organizations have filed Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits demanding that the government release information about the detainees. Rev. Jesse Jackson said, "The civil rights and civil liberties that we have marched and been martyred for are now in jeopardy again."

Many more people need to look long and hard at the brutality and repression against immigrants by the U.S. government and ask themselves if this is the kind of society they want to live in--and if they really think the repression will stop there.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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