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The truth about Washington's assault on our civil rights
Behind bars for being Arab

November 30, 2001 | Page 5

NICOLE COLSON reports on the victims of the Bush gang's crackdown on civil liberties.

"WE WATCH the X-Files on television, but we never thought it would happen here." That's what Pakistani native Asif Kazi told reporters after FBI agents came crashing through the front door of his Chester, Pa., home last week.

The feds held Kazi's wife at gunpoint while they searched the house for evidence of "bioterrorism." Why? A neighbor reported seeing Kazi dumping a cloudy liquid on the ground outside his home. It turned out to be soapy dishwater.

As frightening as the raid was, Kazi and his family are lucky in one way. They were let go. Hundreds of others haven't been so fortunate.

Since September 11, well over 1,200 people, mostly Arab immigrants and foreign nationals, have been detained by authorities. There's no way of knowing just how many are still in jail or what charges they're being held on. That's because Attorney General John Ashcroft refuses to disclose basic information about them--their names, where they're being held, the reasons for their arrests.

And in early November, the Justice Department announced that it would no longer even issue a count of the number of people in custody as a result of the September 11 investigation. The Justice Department would only say that a "majority" of detainees--meaning more than 600 people--were still behind bars.

Not a single person has been charged with any crime directly related to the September 11 attacks. But that hasn't stopped authorities from keeping hundreds of Middle Eastern men in jail for weeks--or even months--for such "crimes" as visa violations.

The excuses that the FBI and Justice Department have used to justify the detentions are ludicrous. Fathi Mustafa, a 65-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Palestine, and his son Nacer Fathi Mustafa, a 29-year-old U.S. citizen, were detained in Houston on September 15, while on their way home to Florida after a business trip to Mexico. They were pulled aside by immigration officials at the Houston airport, where they were scheduled to catch a connecting flight.

Their crime? Their passports happened to contain an extra sheet of plastic laminate--a mistake made by officials who issued the passports--which immigration officers claimed could be used to insert fraudulent photos.

Though they had used the same documents to enter the U.S. before, the two men were thrown in jail--for having "altered passports." Fathi Mustafa was eventually released and allowed to return home to Florida. But he had to wear a leg monitor to track his movements. Nacer Mustafa was denied bail and sat in jail for more than two months--simply for having an extra piece of plastic on his passport.

This is just one of the horror stories emerging from Ashcroft's "roundup." Of those remaining behind bars, many have had little or no contact with family members or lawyers.

And there are growing reports about physical and psychological mistreatment of detainees. For example, in Mississippi, immigration authorities raided a bus that a 20-year-old Pakistani college student was riding on his way back to school. He was detained for a visa violation. While in jail, he was stripped and beaten by three white inmates who called him "bin Laden" and threatened to kill him.

Conditions are so appalling that seven detainees at a county jail in New Jersey have launched a hunger strike to demand information about their cases and protest poor treatment.

Elsewhere, there is growing criticism of the detentions. In early November in Los Angeles, 150 demonstrators from several area colleges and universities staged a march in the city's garment district to protest the detentions. Garment workers waved white sheets out of the windows of their workplaces in solidarity with the demonstrators.

In New York City, 80 people protested outside the Immigration and Naturalization Service offices in early November. "I hope this demonstration is the first step of a broader movement," said one protester, "to disclose the names, to release the detainees without charges and to stop the rounding up of people based on skin color, religion and last name."

Bush signs order for military tribunals

NO PRESIDENT since the Second World War has claimed the right to try defendants before secret military tribunals. Now George W. Bush has. In mid-November, Bush issued an executive order to use the special tribunals in the trials of noncitizen terrorism suspects. Even right-winger William Safire opposed Bush's "assumption of dictatorial power to ignore our courts."

Defendants tried under military courts would lose Constitutional protections guaranteed to them in civilian courts. A panel of three judges, most likely made up of military officials, would preside at the trials, decide guilt or innocence and pass sentence, including the death sentence.

The standard for finding a defendant guilty would be easier to meet than in civilian courts, and the Pentagon could keep the proceedings secret. Lawyers would be appointed by the military, and prosecutors won't have to reveal sources of evidence.

As civil rights expert Bruce Shapiro put it, the Bush gang is "quite literally discarding the Constitution in the name of justice."

"We're looking like a Third World country"

"MILITARY TRIBUNALS, secret evidence, no numbers on how many people the government is detaining," Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, told the Washington Post. "We're looking like a Third World country."

And if Bush and Ashcroft get their way, there will be many more detainees. Ashcroft's latest scheme is a racial profiling plan to round up 5,000 legal immigrants of Middle Eastern descent between the ages of 18 and 33.

The plan is so blatantly racist that Andrew Kirkland, the acting police chief of Portland, Ore., refused to cooperate with the Justice Department. So have other local police officials.

Foreign students have also come under attack. In a recent survey of 220 colleges and universities, the majority said that they had been contacted by the Justice Department or other law enforcement officials and had willingly turned over private information about foreign students to the government.

But even this isn't enough for Ashcroft. In early November, he announced that the Justice Department was entitled to listen in on the conversations of lawyers with clients in federal custody--if it was "deemed necessary to prevent violence or terrorism."

The feds are determined to get answers from the detainees. "Among the alternatives under discussion," the Washington Post reported, "are using drugs or pressure tactics, such as those employed occasionally by Israeli interrogators." In plain language, torture.

Another idea being floated in the Justice Department is to extradite suspects to countries "where security services sometimes employ threats to family members or resort to torture," the Post wrote.

Even members of Congress are beginning to question the Bush administration's naked power grab. "Collectively, the administration has swept away the independent judiciary, the right to a public trial, the right to an appeal, the right to counsel, due process, equal protection and habeas corpus," said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).

But we can't trust the politicians to protect our rights. Congress has approved every antiterrorism measure that Ashcroft and friends have proposed since September 11--and by wide margins.

Opinion polls show that many people support Washington's crackdown on civil liberties in the belief that it will protect them from terrorism. But Ashcroft only wants to grab as much power as he can.

We have to expose the consequences of the feds' roundup--and show Washington that we'll fight to defend our rights.

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