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Ashcroft's war at home

October 25, 2002 | Page 10

NICOLE COLSON reports on the U.S. government's witch-hunt of Arabs and Muslims.

ATTORNEY GENERAL John Ashcroft pulled out all the stops to get to Chicago on October 9. He had to take time out of his "busy schedule" to appear at a press conference--and announce that the Feds were indicting Enaam Arnaout, director of a Palos Hills, Ill.-based Muslim charity, with charges relating to "terrorism."

Arnaout has been sitting in jail since the end of April because he dared to challenge the Bush administration's witch-hunt against Arabs and Muslims. Last December, Ashcroft's Justice Department froze the Benevolence International Foundation's (BIF) assets, claiming that the charity funneled money to Islamist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Russian republic of Chechnya.

But the BIF fought back, suing the government to win the right to resume operations. The Feds decided to make an example of Arnaout. He was arrested April 30--on perjury charges for denying any BIF connection to terrorist or military organizations.

The "proof" of the connection were decades-old photos--supposedly restored from a computer found in a BIF offices in Bosnia--that showed Osama bin Laden and Arnaout apparently in the same location, though not in the same photo.

When a judge threw out the bogus perjury charges, the Feds were ready with a new indictment--this time alleging that Arnaout is directly linked to bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. This time, the "proof" comes from notes "discovered" at the BIF's offices that summarize the 1988 meetings in Afghanistan at which the al-Qaeda network was formed.

Of course, in the 1980s, the U.S. government itself was aligned with Islamists like Osama bin Laden--siding with their war against the former USSR's occupation of Afghanistan. "If this is our government's idea of a war on terrorism," Matt Piers, a lawyer for the charity, told the Chicago Tribune, "I suggest that our country is in deep trouble."

During the Chicago press conference, Ashcroft declared, "[W]hat is perhaps most disturbing about this case is that Enaam Arnaout is charged with using a purportedly charitable organization to deceive Muslim-American charitable givers, who are obliged by the principles of their religion to donate to legitimate charity."

What nerve! Ashcroft--the man more responsible than any other for the witch-hunt of Arabs and Muslims following the September 11 attacks--is trying to pretend that he cares about them? "What's most disturbing" about this case is the way that the Bush administration has rode roughshod over civil liberties to scapegoat immigrants and expand police powers.

Well over 1,000 people--almost all of them young men of Arab descent--were rounded up as part of the investigation into the September 11 attacks. At least 600 were deported for the most minor of immigration violations, and hundreds more suffered horribly because they were caught up in the Justice Department's net. Yet not a single person has been charged with any crime directly related to the September 11 attacks.

Sakher Hammad, a 24-year-old plumber from New York City, knows the consequences firsthand. In February, Hammad and four friends were accused of trying to obtain Tennessee driver's licenses illegally--a misdemeanor.

But in court, the government claimed that the men had "connections" to the September 11 attacks. One prosecutor even announced that a local Department of Motor Vehicles employee accused of selling the fake licenses had been expected to testify, but she had been killed hours earlier in a "suspicious" car crash.

Of course, neither Hammad nor his friends are terrorists, and they had nothing to do with the car accident. "My life is destroyed," Hammad told Salon magazine. "I lost my business. I lost a lot of my friends. I lost my fiancée. My apartment. You can't really tell the story until you live it…I grew up here. It's my country. I've been here eight years, working hard and paying taxes. I never had a problem with anybody and look what happened to me."

But victims like Hammad are all too common. That's in large part because lawmakers have bent over backwards to satisfy every whim of Aschroft's "Injustice" Department--legitimizing the witch-hunt hysteria at every turn.

It began with Congress ramming through the USA-PATRIOT Act in October--a law that gave law enforcement at every level vast new powers for domestic spying, searches, detainment and deportation.

But the witch-hunters haven't gone unchallenged. In New York City, activists have organized regular demonstrations to demand the release of detainees. And earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced that it will launch a "Campaign to Defend the Constitution."

"Last December, Attorney General Ashcroft, the chief law enforcement officer of this country, effectively accused those who 'frighten peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty' of siding with the terrorists," said Laura Murphy, executive director of the ACLU. "Now more than ever, it's necessary to stand up for the Bill of Rights."

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