In an Internet discussion group Mr. Mahbubul Karim Sohel, mentioned how a Canadian Muslim, Mr. Maher Arar, became a victim of the Patriot Act. He wrote: “Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen and Ottawa computer consultant, 33-year-old, married and father of two children, was abducted in New York airport last year, and sent to prison of Syria for further torture. Is this believable? Is this a far-fetched story? Without providing him any lawyer during the interrogation, without going through due process of law, a Canadian citizen, who is entitled to all of his constitutional rights, were treated viciously, violating the norm of human rights that Canada is supposedly champion of upholding.”
Maher Arar’s story, while very sad, is not very different from many other incidents of gross violations of human rights that are now rampant in Bush and Ashcroft’s America. After 9/11, the Patriot Act has often been abused to making lives of many Muslims and Arabs unbearable.
Bugging phone lines has become a common tactics by the Justice Department to listen into Muslim conversations. Even the Philadelphia Mayor, John Street (whose son Sharif Street is reported to belong to the Islamic faith), a person well liked by many Muslims of the area, was not immune from electronic bugging of his office by the FBI. When John Ashcroft visited Philadelphia last month to sell his Patriot Act and how well Americans had benefited from his office, he didn’t want to speak with any of the Democratic party Congressmen from the area, despite their request to do so, to discuss this probe against the Mayor. Fortunately, for the Mayor, the probe united the Black community and they rallied behind to reelect him.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, a few months ago, ran a story about how another Iranian Muslim was imprisoned by the Justice Department. The fellow was in love with the daughter of his employer, which the latter disapproved of. So, to punish the guy and take advantage of the Patriot Act, the employer falsely accused him of trying to ‘blow up America.’ I am not sure whether he has been released yet or not. There are hundreds languishing in the York Detention Camp, PA alone on so-called immigration violations.
I have known a Bangladeshi student quite closely, who had come to this country to pursue graduate studies. He was illegally imprisoned in the York County Detention Center on false charges. There was nothing illegal about him. He had taken a student loan of $3120 to cover his tuition fee towards an MBA degree at the Pennsylvania state-funded West Chester University. He could not pay off the loan before his graduation date of May 10. Shortly before his graduation day, he was informed that he could not attend the ceremony unless the loan was paid off. (He had earlier sent an invitation to me requesting to attend the ceremony.) Naturally this was an embarrassing thing for him. He was very disappointed and wanted to discuss the matter with the Dean. The Dean asked him to meet her in person on May 8. However, that day, she did not show up for the meeting. Since it had already taken several days to just find a date that was agreeable with the Dean, the latter’s non- show-up on the appointed date was deemed by the student as an irresponsible act, and he went straightaway to the President’s office to complain the matter, venting his frustration.
Now what followed from there was a bizarre story. Instead, of trying to help the student or address his grievances, the President’s office contacted the BCIS (Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services) office the next day, May 9, 2003, alleging FALSELY that the student had not maintained his studentship beyond February 2003 (that is, his status was illegal in this country as of April). The BCIS office (in Callowhill Street, Philadelphia) followed up on the matter and came to the WCU campus on June 3. To have him arrested, the WCU campus security called his apartment (in Philadelphia) on June 3 asking him to come to the University campus (while not disclosing the actual intent). He took a bus (as he always did) to get to the campus. And that day, when he arrived there were two BCIS officers ready to handcuff him charging him of overstaying in this country. To them, he should have left the USA by April (i.e., within 60 days from February, as was falsely accused by WCU officials). [In the court report, it said that he was arrested while driving inside the campus. The poor fellow did not have any car and took a bus, as usual, to get to the campus. Just imagine the kind of falsification that goes on in this country.]
How could the student violate his student visa status, when his grades for the Spring semester were not posted until May 9 and his graduation day was May 10, 2003? A call to his course instructor could easily have validated his side of the story that he had taken a course with him in April, whose grades were only posted on May 9. This matter was simply so wacky that I had difficulty contemplating that a Dean and a President of a state-funded university (WCU-PA) would do such an evil and irresponsible thing, simply because the student had a verbal argument with its highest authority. Unfortunately, that is exactly what they did to punish this student. These university officials lied and made a false accusation to BCIS, thus victimizing the student under the pretext of newer immigration laws, leading to his imprisonment in the York Prison, where he was detained for more than two months.
I was informed of the matter by the student’s American landlady and a relative (who had called from Bangladesh) after few days of this incident (of June 3). After several days of almost nonstop trials to reach him over the phone, I was eventually able to speak with him on June 17. Since he was all set to leave the country by the first week of July (and had earlier, before being detained, reserved a plane ticket to leave on July 1), his parents wanted him to take a voluntary deportation when he faced the court. He had his court hearing (with no defense lawyer to represent him) on Monday, June 23 and was asked to post a bail of $20,000 within 5 working days and leave the country before July 3. On June 24, the ABC Bail Bonds Company contacted his landlady. She provided my contact numbers and they tried to extract the bail money plus $3000 as a fee (nor-refundable).
After that other bail companies contacted me, and even asked for higher amounts (e.g., $4000 as a fee) on the top of $20,000 bond money. The Philadelphia BCIS office hinted that upon payment of the bail money, the student may be released and he would be able to collect his stuffs and leave the country voluntarily before July 3. But the Detention officer told me otherwise stating that no amount of money would have him released, i.e., ‘he won’t see the light outside; he would be taken hand-cuffed to the airport on a day of their choosing and deported to Bangladesh.’ There were simply too many conflicting information that were fed to me via Detention Center and immigration office on whether the posting of the bail amount plus a proof of ticket to Bangladesh would have him released temporarily or not, that I decided to contact a couple of Bangladeshi-American lawyers who advised me against making any payment for bail (plus fee), especially, since he was illegally detained.
The whole episode was so bizarre that if such an abuse of human rights for unlawful detention of a legally enrolled foreign student in a state-owned public university (like WCU-PA) had taken place with any of our American students studying overseas, it would have made a big story in this country. Legal cases asking for monetary compensation for physical and mental abuse could have followed. But there was none to publicize his story (except the posting that I made in the internet and Bangladeshi newspapers).
As a concerned citizen of this country (and a well-wisher of this student), I wanted to see an end to this sad saga and urged both the Senators from Pennsylvania, plus the Governor and Lt. Governor and Congressman in the locality to intervene and stop this abuse of human rights, but to no avail. They never returned my calls or replied to my notes. I approached Dr. Irene Khan’s Amnesty International. I must say they are very prompt and efficient in what they do. Within 24 hours, its representative directly contacted the student in York and followed up with me. But they could not do much to have him released because of the new abusive laws. They advised me to approach the University and Bangladesh Embassy.
One Sunday in June, my wife and I visited the student at the York Prison. We had known the student earlier and had occasionally invited the student to dine with us. I remembered how excited he was to come to this country to be able to pursue a Masters in Law from the Temple University (which he duly completed before pursuing his MBA degree at WCU). This time when we met him in the prison, we were simply shocked to see his physical condition. He had lost nearly 30 pounds and was in a despicable shape, totally frustrated and hopeless about his ordeal. He had suffered so much to satisfy the arrogance of WCU-PA administrators. I told him about my failure to have him released. I could not give him much hope but advised him not to lose hope so that the abusive system did not break him mentally. I also advised him to read books if he had access to and to pray.
Soon after that meeting, I paid off the student’s tuition fee and managed to collect his MBA diploma and transcripts from the university. I contacted the Dean and urged her to directly approach the immigration office to have the student released, failing which the university may be sued for falsely accusing a legal student of violation of his student status. I also approached Bangladesh Embassy a few times. There, the officers in charge of immigration, esp. the First Secretary Mr. Chowdhury Nur, were of tremendous help. Their plea with the Detention Officer probably made the difference. And eventually after an illegal detention of nearly 9 weeks, the student was deported to Bangladesh. None of the US government officials apologized for their crime against this Bangladeshi student.
Just imagine if this is the situation with a student who had maintained his legal status how bad it is with those who might have slight violations. Many Bangladeshi and Pakistanis have, therefore, opted to leave this country fearing prolonged imprisonment. I don’t blame them but blame those who had turned this country from a nation of immigrants to a nation of racial profilers.
What is happening in this country, post 9/11, is a very disturbing saga, tarnishing the image of this nation abroad. I am simply shocked and appalled at how horrendous our government agencies have become; how the system is abused to victimize innocents. They behave as if we are in Hitler and Stalin’s Germany and Russia, respectively. Our government has no higher moral ground to boast of its human rights record and to accuse others for the lack of it while they are setting the worst record. The fear-tactics, employed by this government is so nasty and chilling that most Muslims are even afraid to write a cheque to any Islamic organization.
I hope conscientious people around the globe wake-up to the reality of the birth of neo-fascism and global unilateralism and dump their demonic messengers in the dustbin of history before it is too late.