Justice Denied to Arab Americans

Over 1,200 Arab and Muslim Americans have been swept up and detained by the US government in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Today, hundreds still remain in jail, and they have been denied the most basic democratic rights. Only one detainee has been charged with any crime related to September 11th. Most have been detained for “crimes” of minor immigration paperwork violations.

Many have been denied contact with their families and access to lawyers. The government has not even released the names or locations of the detainees supposedly tied to September 11th, and many of their lawyers don’t even know where they are. No one really knows the total number still detained by the government, since the Justice Department stopped keeping count in November, but some human rights groups estimate the number to be 2000.

Here are some of the cases of detained immigrants that have been reported:

Dr. Al-Badr Al-Hazmi was detained for 12 days without being charged with a crime. At 5 am on September 12th, five FBI agents came to his home to arrest him, taking him away in pajamas. He was taken in handcuffs and shackles to New York two days later, five days before his first contact with a lawyer. He was completely exonerated, as he was arrested only for having the same surname as two of the alleged September 11th hijackers (Seattle P-I, 10/1/01).

Rabih Haddad has been detained since December 14th for overstaying his tourist visa, although he and his wife applied for permanent resident status in April 2001. In 1992, he co-founded the Global Relief Foundation, one of the US’s largest charity organizations, whose assets the Treasury Department has frozen. Haddad is kept in his cell 23 hours a day. When he’s allowed out, Haddad is kept handcuffed for the entire time, even while he showers. The US government has yet to charge either Mr. Haddad or his foundation with a crime, nor have they presented any evidence against them, but his wife and three of their four children have been served with deportation orders. The extreme secrecy of the court proceedings in his case, which normally would be open to the public but which neither he nor his supporters have been allowed to attend, prompted two Detroit-area newspapers and US Rep. John Conyers (the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee) to join a lawsuit challenging the legality of closing the proceedings (The Independent, 2/26/02).

Others have not been so “lucky.”

Muhammad Rafiq Butt, a 55 year-old Pakistani, was detained from September 19th until found dead on October 23rd in his Hudson County (NJ) Correctional Center cell. He was detained for overstaying his visitor visa, with the FBI acknowledging that they had no interest in him for their terrorism investigations. At the time of his arrest, his only possessions were a Pakistani passport and ID card, and no money. His cousin claims that a report from an autopsy performed in Pakistan found multiple fractures and deep bruises of his legs and chest (Islam Online, 11/1/01; New York Times, 11/5/01).

Anser Mehmood has been detained since October 3rd for failing to drive his delivery truck to Washington on September 11th just before the Pentagon attack (after his wife had called him following the WTC attacks). Although he has not been charged with a crime, he was denied contact with his family for the first 3 months of his detention. After selling most of their possessions, poverty has now forced his wife and 4 sons, one US-born, to move back to Pakistan (ABC News, 2/21/02).

This contrasts sharply with the governments response to the Oklahoma City bombing. The fact that white males, with or without the last names of McVeigh, were (correctly) not detained for being potential terrorists, shows the entirely racist nature of the current round-ups.

Detaining random Arab Americans provides a false sense of security to the public. In reality, these measures will do nothing— to stop terrorism. Israel, for example, has the tightest security in the world, and even they cannot stop terrorism. The only realistic solution is to eradicate the conditions that breed terrorism in the first place – poverty, oppression, and the domination of the world by a few big capitalist powers.

Citizens and non-citizens alike should also be concerned about the USA PATRIOT Act. This act flaunts the supposed “checks and balances” between the three branches of government, by giving the Executive branch the power to detain non-citizens indefinitely if the Attorney General has “reasonable grounds to believe” that are a danger to national security. The act removes judicial review of the Attorney General’s decision and the requirement that he provide specific reasons for detentions.

The act is so broad that it could theoretically allow the Secretary of State to designate as ‘terrorists’ all types of groups from militant trade unionists, to anti-globalization activists who advocate “direct action,” to socialists. Its “guilt by association” provisions allow the FBI to conduct electronic surveillance of suspects and their “associates” without giving specific limitations, probable cause, or judicial review.

The new repressive laws are currently being used against Arab Americans, but later they will be used against all immigrants, people of color, union activists, LGBT activists, and anyone critical of the government.

We must build a movement against the unjustified detentions of Arab Americans and the attacks on democratic rights. There is no reason why the names of the detainees cannot be released to the public immediately. All immigrants being held for technical immigration paperwork violations should be immediately released, particularly considering the brutal conditions that many detainees have been subjected to in jail. If the government is unwilling to charge the detainees with anything substantial, then they should be released immediately. If any immigrants are in detention because of terrorist related charges, they should have private access to a lawyer of their choosing.

Who can we trust to judge whether there is enough evidence to hold these immigrants as terrorist suspects? The government has completely violated the Bill of Rights by detaining people simply on the basis of their country of origin, in order to appear “tough on terrorism.” The US government has a consistent history of exploiting national tragedies to divide the working class and channel anger at immigrants. Due to the government’s blatant failure to act “impartially,” and its total disregard for due process, an truly independent review panel of representatives from community groups (including Muslims, Arabs and other immigrants) and trade unions should be established to investigate the charges against the detainees. The panel should not only focus on investigating the violations of the innocent detainees but also on the Bush Administration’s violations of constitutional rights, due process, and civil liberties – particularly the actions of Attorney General Ashcroft and the FBI.

September 11th was not the first tragedy that the US government has utilized in order to whip up public anger towards immigrants. In 1882, the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act specifically targeted Chinese laborers, who were deemed to “endanger the good order” by taking jobs from US citizens. In the 1920’s, the National Origins Act used quotas to severely limit immigration, particularly from Asia and southern and eastern Europe. In 1942, President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 allowed the internment of over 100,000 US citizens of Japanese descent (and a lesser number of people of German or Italian descent). In the 1990’s, Operation Gatekeeper fostered widespread brutality by Border Agents, and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, subsequently found to be illegal, greatly expanded, retroactively, the list of deportable offenses.

Justice #29, March 2002