US Muslims experiencing the true nature of American ‘democracy’

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Soon after September 11 reports surfaced of Arab and Muslim men being arrested, shackled, denied access to lawyers and families, refused medical attention and sometimes even beaten, while in the custody of United States authorities. American human-rights and lawyers’ groups estimate that some 2,000 people, mostly Arabs and Muslims, are being held throughout the US without trial, legal representation or, in many cases, charge. Many have little idea when they might be tried or freed. Their plight is yet another blot on America’s poor record of dealings with Muslims and the Muslim world.

Because of the heavy secrecy imposed by US attorney general John Ashcroft, it is impossible either to scrutinize the authorities’ actions properly or to know exactly how many people are in custody. But the US justice department said recently that 327 people were still held in connection with September 11. There is good reason to believe that these are only a small fraction of the total in custody, as most were arrested on minor immigration violations unrelated to September 11. In January the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said that about 350 detainees are still held despite having been identified by the justice department itself as ‘inactive’: i.e. they are not part of the criminal investigation of what happened on September 11.

More detentions are likely. In January, Ashcroft launched a so-called ‘absconders apprehension initiative,’ in which he identified 6,000 Arab men, known to have overstayed their visas, for immediate arrest and deportation. By targeting Arabs and ignoring the 315,000 others also known to be in the US with outstanding deportation orders, the initiative becomes an act of blatant race-based discrimination.

The Bush administration has demonstrated unprecedented zeal in instituting draconian measures aimed mainly at Arabs and Muslims. Only ten days after the attacks, the administration issued instructions of dubious constitutionality to immigration judges: they were to keep certain proceedings closed, with ‘no visitors, no family, and no press’ present; they were also not to release ‘the record of the proceeding…to anyone,’ including ‘confirming or denying whether such a case is on the docket or scheduled for a hearing.’ Many of the detainees were not even charged until several days, sometimes weeks, after being arrested. Others were locked up with regular inmates, who in some documented cases attacked the detainees, even after friends or relatives had tried to post the bail set earlier by a judge.

As more details became known, a chilling picture of a full-blooded campaign against Muslims and Arabs began to emerge. The case of Tarek Muhammad Fayyad, an Egyptian-born dentist living in California, is instructive. Arrested on September 13, Fayyad was later moved to the Brooklyn Detention Centre in New York City, where he was kept in conditions of such secrecy that it took his lawyer a month to find him. Muhammad Rafiq Butt, 55, a Pakistani, died on October 23 of a heart attack in his cell at Hudson County Jail, New Jersey, leaving behind a wife and four children. Butt had no heart problem before his detention, and two weeks before he died had submitted a written request for a doctor to examine him for his worsening chest pains. His request was still under consideration when he died. His cellmate, Muhammad Munir Gundal, 45, also from Pakistan, has since suffered two heart attacks and undergone major heart surgery. Syed Shakeeb Raza Shah, another Pakistani who was arrested in late September, was granted voluntary departure in mid-October; he was scheduled to leave on November 3, yet is still at Hudson County Jail, where he recently suffered a stroke.

In early February the justice department postponed the departure of 87 detainees cleared for deportation by the INS on the excuse that it wanted to conduct further checks on them. No evidence has so far implicated any of the 87 in the attacks on the WTC or the Pentagon. Holding deportees to give investigators time to look for probably nonexistent evidence of alleged links with ‘terrorism’ is an affront to any system of justice that claims to be based on the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

The Patriot Act, which Congress passed in October, expands investigators’ powers, including the power to read people’s emails, computer hard-drives and financial and medical records. It allows immigration authorities to hold a suspect for a ‘reasonable’ period if the government has reason to believe that that person poses a threat to ‘national security’ or has information about ‘terrorist’ activities. Regulations that came into effect on October 29 establish special standards for dealing with non-citizens. They allow the INS to hold non-citizens indefinitely in ’emergency’ circumstances. They also permit the INS to invoke ‘automatic stay’ to keep non-citizens behind bars even after immigration judges have ordered their release for lack of evidence. The stay remains in effect until the Board of Immigration Appeals reaches a decision, a process that could take months or years.

The US government has also moved against Muslim charities in the US (see Crescent International, January 1, 2002). The White House alleges that these charities were linked with al-Qa’eda and distributed money to the families of Hamas activists, including the families of martyrdom-bombers. Bush justified his decision to close down the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development (HLF) as part of his ‘financial fight against terror’.

The HLF has aided poor families in the US and overseas since it was established in 1989. It was originally known as the Occupied Land Foundation, but changed its name in 1992. Last year it collected $13 million. Although its main purpose is to help Palestinian refugees, its support has also reached families in the US, Bosnia, Kosova, Albania, Turkey, Chechnya, Mozambique and elsewhere. It has also played a significant role in relief-work in the US, for instance during the Iowa floods (1999), when tornadoes ripped through Oklahoma and Texas (1997), and after the Oklahoma City bombing (1995). After September 11 the HLF established a fund for those victims too.

As the US treasury department moved to freeze Global Relief Fund (GRF) assets and FBI agents raided its headquarters, INS officers arrested Rabih Haddad, one of its co-founders. He has been in solitary confinement since. Haddad, a US-educated Lebanese citizen who went out of his way to condemn the attacks of September 11, is yet to be formally charged. His only offence is a visa irregularity; the tourist visa on which he entered the US in 1998 expired after six months, and at the time of his arrest he and his family were in the process of applying for permanent residence status, benefiting from a visa-amnesty passed in the last days of Clinton’s administration. He is allowed just four hours of visits by his family a month.

Court proceedings in Haddad’s case have been absurdly secretive; he himself has been barred from attending and forced to watch them on video from his cell, without the right to participate. John Conyers, Michigan congressman and senior Democrat on the US House Judiciary Committee, said recently about Haddad’s case: ‘The treatment of Rabih Haddad by the Immigration and Naturalization Service over the past several weeks has highlighted everything that is abusive and unconstitutional about our government’s scapegoating of immigrants in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack.’ Conyers has also been barred from attending a hearing in Haddad’s case; he and scores of other supporters were forced to sit on the pavement outside the courthouse.

GRF offices in Kosova and Albania were also raided by NATO troops, and two workers were held in custody for several weeks. The GRF has 20,000 donors and disburses some $5 million annually in aid packages to projects and families in 22 countries, supporting hospitals and schools and providing emergency relief to victims of natural and man-made disasters.

The continual anti-Muslim smear-campaign, in which insensitive reporting is compounding the damage inflicted by anti-Muslim regulations, contributes to a mood of public hysteria: anything against Muslims is permissible so long as the pretext is ‘safety and security’. The experience of Sami al-Arian, a tenured Palestinian-born computer-science professor at the University of Southern Florida (USF), is a case in point. Arian’s ordeal started on September 28, when he agreed to participate in a televised show to discuss American Muslims’ reactions to September 11. Instead, he found himself denounced by Bill O’Reilly, the show’s host, for videotaped anti-Israel remarks he had made some 15 years ago. After the show USF president Judy Genshaft suspended Arian, citing ‘safety concerns’, because of a flood of phone calls, emails and letters criticizing the university for employing him. On December 28 Genshaft moved to terminate Arian’s contract, ostensibly for failing to make it clear that he was speaking for himself and not the university when he appeared on the show. The dismissal of Arian has all the hallmarks of a witch-hunt.

The extreme measures taken since September 11, and the arbitrary way in which they are being implemented, are probably a foretaste of worse to come. Perhaps most disturbing is the move, without congressional authorization, to set up special military tribunals with the power to try ‘terrorists’ captured overseas. Unlike ordinary military tribunals (in which trials are open to the public, defendants have the right to review evidence, and sentence of death can only be passed by a unanimous ruling of the judges), the special tribunals are closed to the public, can use secret evidence, and can sentence to death with a two-thirds majority. The potential for abuse is enormous, and the US government’s demeanour so far is cause for grave concern about the future of the Muslims and Arabs in America.

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