San Diego: Prisoners of the Modern American Witchhunt

Revolutionary Worker #1136, January 27, 2002, posted at

"I knew I was innocent and they were wrong, so I have to be patient. They treated me as a terrorist. They stripped us and videotaped us. It was like a party for them with lots of jokes. It was humiliating. I was treated worse than an animal."

Yazeed al-Salmi, a student from Saudi Arabia
who was detained for 17 days

Broad, white sandy beaches; sprawling parks lush with greenery; smog-free blue skies; an average annual temperature in the mid-70s. The chamber of commerce ads gush, "San Diego is the city that's always in season." But the warmth of this border city has never embraced the many immigrants from Latin America and other parts of the world. And since September 11, an ominous chill has invaded the lives of the estimated 100,000 Arab and Muslim immigrants who live in San Diego County.

The U.S. government claims that three of the hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks had lived in San Diego. Soon after 9/11 federal agents began a dragnet in the area focused on Arab and Muslim people-as part of a nationwide operation that has so far resulted in more than 1,200 people being detained.

The first victims of the government's dragnet were students detained as "material witnesses." They had some incidental contact with the alleged hijackers, such as working at the same place or going to the same mosque-and this made them "suspect" in the eyes of the government. A federal judge sealed all proceedings on these cases, barred the media from the courtroom, and imposed a gag order on attorneys, citing "national security concerns." The law does not spell out how long a material witness can be held in jail without being charged with a crime, but some of the men were told they would be transferred to New York and held for a year.

Randall B. Hamud, an attorney for some of the detainees, said, "This is all guilt by association." He said that the detentions amount to a witch hunt of Middle Easterners, and he characterized his clients' arrests as "Gestapo-like tactics." An Arab American, Hamud said he would go to New York to represent his clients-"assuming they will let me on a plane."

In early October, Hamud said his clients were being physically abused and strip-searched by prison guards. "They're being treated like sub-humans. These are innocent men."

These are the stories of several young men who were among the first victims of this witch hunt.


Yazeed al-Salmi, 23, is a legal resident from Saudi Arabia enrolled at Grossmont Community College in eastern San Diego County. He is in the U.S. legally on a two-year student visa that expires in July 2002. Through his mosque, he found a room to rent in a boarding house where one of the alleged hijackers was also a boarder. On September 20, the FBI came to his apartment, and he allowed them to search it without a warrant. He was arrested three days later, taken to the federal jail in San Diego and then to San Bernardino, to Oklahoma, and finally to New York.

In jail, he was not allowed to shower or brush his teeth for eight days. He was held in isolation without reading materials, television or radio. He was eventually given the Koran. When his lawyer was finally allowed to visit him, he had bruises on his upper body, upper arm, back of his neck, and welts on his wrists and ankles from beatings by guards.

On October 9, 17 days after his arrest, al-Salmi was released after appearing before a federal grand jury, which questioned him about his religious beliefs and about his relationship with the hijackers. "Seventeen days is like 17 years," he said. "I counted every single minute."


Twenty-one-year-old Osama Awadallah, from Jordan, is a legal resident with a green card. On September 23 he was taken into custody as a material witness because he was acquainted with two of the alleged hijackers. His phone number was also found in the glove compartment of a car registered to one of the alleged hijackers. According to Awadallah's attorney, the phone number found in the car was over a year old. Also, the FBI found a razor blade attached to a handle in Awadallah's car. They likened it to the box cutters that the hijackers used. Awadallah explained that he had used the blade to cut carpet.

On October 20, Awadallah was charged with making false statements to a grand jury because he said he knew one of the hijackers but not the other. The government said he wrote in a school journal, "I have met many people from many countries," and included the names of two alleged hijackers in his list of acquaintances. The FBI interviewed Awadallah's teachers at Grossmont and asked them to turn over all his assignments. The journal containing the reference to the two hijackers was a grammar exercise. The teacher described Awadallah as friendly and bright. He had approached this teacher after 9/11 to say that he was very upset about the whole thing and that Islam did not condone what happened. The teacher said fear might have caused Awadallah to misspeak in front of the grand jury.

One of his attorneys said his client was confused during grand jury questioning and did not intentionally commit perjury. "They've looked over him with a fine-toothed comb for a month now, and after 20 to 30 hours of examination, this is what they come up with."

Awadallah was not accused of knowing anything about the attacks on 9/11, but the federal magistrate initially denied bail, saying Awadallah was "a flight risk and dangerous because of his association with terrorists." A federal judge later set bail at $500,000 (about 25 times higher than the typical bail for perjury).

Awadallah was held in solitary confinement for nearly three months. According to court documents filed by his lawyer, a guard at an Oklahoma City jail threw shoes at Awadallah's head, and a guard in New York pushed him into a wall and pulled his hair, forcing him to face a U.S. flag. He was finally released on December 14.


Mohdar Abdallah, 22, is from Somalia. He was arrested at gunpoint in the parking lot of a suburban shopping center on September 21. FBI agents searched his apartment and seized his car and computer. They asked the apartment manager if she'd ever noticed any anti-American slogans, decorations or statements at the apartment. She answered that she had not.

Abdallah had worked at the same gas station for several years. A regular customer described him as "the very nicest guy you could know." His neighbor of three years said of Abdallah and his roommates, "They're nice guys. They're cool."

Abdallah was a casual acquaintance of one of the suspected hijackers. They had worked together for two or three months at a car wash and occasionally attended the same mosques. Federal law enforcement "sources" quoted in the press said that another "suspicious" factor was that he has the same last name as one of the alleged hijackers.

On October 15, Abdallah was charged with lying on an application for political asylum. Bail was set at $500,000 (down from $2 million!); the usual bail for such a charge is $20,000. The U.S. Attorney cited "his background, his connections, and his lack of ties to the community." Yet when Abdallah appeared in court, a large group of supporters was present, including the president of Grossmont College's Muslim Student Association.

One of Abdallah's attorneys said that, at first, there were plenty of offers from people willing to testify on his client's behalf during the bail hearings. But, said the attorney, "As the day approached, their feet got colder." The director of a local mosque had testified at Abdallah's first bail hearing. But then he was contacted repeatedly by the FBI. According to the attorney, it was because of this obvious pressure from the FBI that the director "chose" not to testify at subsequent hearings.

If convicted of the charges, Abdallah could face 5 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and deportation.


Omer Bakarbashat, 28, a Yemeni citizen, was arrested on September 15. In mid-November, the government asked an immigration judge to expel Omer from the U.S. for allegedly overstaying his visa while no longer a full-time student. He had worked at the same gas station where one of the hijackers had also worked. At one time, he had also been a boarder in the same residence as the alleged hijackers.

Originally detained as a material witness, Bakarbashat was later accused of five felony immigration violations. Basically, his "crime" is that he overstayed his student visa and worked "illegally." No charges related to terrorism have been filed against him. He has been denied bail and will remain in jail until his trial.

On December 21, 98 days after he was detained as a material witness, he pled not guilty to the immigration violations.


At the end of November, authorities began questioning people in San Diego County as a result of U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft's directive ordering "voluntary interviews" of 5,000 men from countries targeted by the U.S. "war on terrorism." Michel Shehadeh, West Coast regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said some people are so fearful of coming under government scrutiny that they are canceling subscriptions to Arab newspapers, worrying that they may have donated money to a charity that will be accused by the U.S. government of money laundering, and refusing to attend community functions.

On December 12, federal immigration agents arrested 10 people in San Diego County accused of violating their student visas. The arrested students were from countries that have been targeted by the U.S. in its "war on terrorism." None of the 10 is accused of connection to the September 11 attacks. Three of the people have reportedly agreed to "voluntary" deportation.

INS officials said the sweep was just the beginning of an ongoing investigation at the roughly 280 colleges, universities, English-language programs and vocational schools authorized to enroll foreign students in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Lilia Velasquez, an immigration attorney serving on an attorney panel formed by the ACLU in San Diego to give legal advice to people under scrutiny since September 11, said, "Visa violators can be found in any nationality group. What we see now is the INS has first tried to locate and process for deportation students who are from certain nationalities, and this is just the beginning. Certainly the argument has been made that this is racial profiling."

Attorney Randall Hamud, referring to the San Diego students who agreed to "voluntary" interviews and were later detained as material witnesses, said, "The interviews are not benign and not voluntary. My clients extended the hand of cooperation, and their thanks was incarceration and persecution."

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