The disappeared

Here, Nicole Colson tells the story of the hundreds disappeared in the witch-hunt after 9/11. This article first appeared in the March 22, 2002, issue of Socialist Worker.

Prisoners of the government's "war on terror" face conditions that amount to torture

"WHY AM I imprisoned? Why in solitary confinement? And why under maximum security measures? I have many questions and no answers. What are they accusing me of? Nobody knows."

That was the desperate message of a victim of George W. Bush's "war on terrorism" in a recent letter to his family.

Since the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department has carried out a mostly silent and secret war against thousands of people who seem to fit its "profile" of a terrorist. The "profile" is young men of Arab descent--legal residents, foreign nationals, undocumented immigrants or something in between.

Nobody knows exactly how many people have been taken into custody in this racist witch-hunt, or how many remain in jail. That's because the Justice Department stopped releasing figures in November.

But civil rights groups believe that more than 2,000 were detained as part of the September 11 investigation--and that hundreds remain behind bars, held indefinitely on minor immigration violations or criminal charges.

They are America's "disappeared," as Independent journalist Andrew Gumbel put it.

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THE HUMAN rights group Amnesty International released a 40-page report last week detailing numerous abuses of detainees in the Justice Department's September 11 investigation.

"Our research confirms that basic rights have been violated, including the rights to humane treatment, to be informed of the reasons for detention, to have prompt access to a lawyer, to be able to challenge the lawfulness of the detention and to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise," the report said.

But these words don't begin to convey the nightmare that the victims of John Ashcroft's witch-hunt have been subjected to. Stories of beatings are commonplace, as is harassment by prison officials. Detainees are also often kept isolated from their families and lawyers--left with nowhere to turn for help in ending the nightmare.

And thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act--legislation rushed through Congress last year--there's no end in sight. The law gives the Justice Department frightening new powers to persecute immigrants and foreign nationals.

"It's really a disgrace that the Attorney General of the United States thinks we should return to the tactics used during the Spanish Inquisition," immigration lawyer Bennet Zurofsky, who represents a Saudi Arabian detainee, told the Associated Press. "My client comes from a part of the world where they use these secret trials--and then people disappear."

Barbara Olshansky, a civil rights lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, says that the crackdown is being felt far beyond the September 11 investigation. "The idea of the PATRIOT Act was to increasingly blur the lines and shade domestic crimes into foreign intelligence threats," Olshansky said at a panel discussion on civil liberties at Hunter College earlier this month.

For example, the INS has new powers to target more than 300,000 immigrants with outstanding deportation orders, Olshansky said--among them people who have lived in the U.S. for half a century.

Sally O'Keefe got a preview of the consequences. Her husband, Habib Ibrahim, was part of a group of 31 Somali immigrants that was rounded up by the INS in January--and sent back to a country that most hadn't seen since they were babies or small children. Federal officials said the 31 were deported because of minor criminal convictions.

It's illegal for the U.S. to deport people to countries that are in the midst of a civil war, like Somalia, say immigration lawyers. But apparently, with the anti-immigrant hysteria following September 11, the INS couldn't restrain itself.

The 30 men and one woman were deported to Mogadishu, Somalia, on February 14--with no money and no one to help them when they got there. Sally didn't even know that her husband was being deported. And neither did he.

When Ibrahim was moved from a jail and put on a plane, he thought that he was about to be released. Until he saw a sign at the Buffalo airport indicating that his flight was headed to Mogadishu.

O'Keefe didn't hear from her husband until three days later--when he called her from Mogadishu and described his terror at seeing men armed with machine guns roaming the streets.

Ibrahim told O'Keefe that at least one of the men who had been deported with him was killed in a gunfight in the streets of Mogadishu. Ibrahim has little money and no place to go--and he recently contracted malaria.

"I'm afraid for his life," O'Keefe told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "I think we pretend to respect human rights, but we don't really...Our president talks so much about how, after September 11, families need to stick together and how our country's all for freedom and equality and justice and all these things. And yet my family's broken apart."

If Ashcroft's gang gets its way, there's more to come. Already, the Justice Department has enthusiastically enforced new powers handed to it under the USA PATRIOT Act--for example, the use of secret evidence.

And where Congress left off, Ashcroft has marched on, issuing executive orders that allow immigration courts to close their proceedings and let prison officials eavesdrop on conversations between immigrant detainees and their lawyers.

As veteran immigration lawyer Marc Van Der Hout concluded, "The Justice Department is really taking advantage of September 11 to put forward a lot of proposals that it had in its hip pocket beforehand: restrict the rights of immigrants; keep people detained for long periods of time; bypass a lot of rulings of immigration judges; and ultimately have the attorney general dictate what happens."

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The bigot in charge

Was there anyone in Washington more certain to launch a witch-hunt of immigrants after September 11 than John Ashcroft? His whole political career has been built on persecuting and punishing the vulnerable--in order to serve the rich and powerful.

As a U.S. senator--and Missouri's governor and attorney general before that--Ashcroft depended on racists and anti-abortion bigots for his core support. An unapologetic lover of the slaveholding Confederacy, he was known in Missouri for opposing school desegregation.

In every office he's held, Ashcroft has backed the most extreme anti-choice proposals he could find. He's never met a tough-on-crime initiative that he didn't like, and he won't stop complaining about the rights of defendants.

Of course, there are exceptions. As a senator, Ashcroft wrote a series of letters to the Justice Department demanding mercy for Charles Sell, a Missouri dentist indicted on charges of conspiring to murder an FBI agent and a federal witness.

Turns out that Sell is a member of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC). After meeting with a CCC leader in 2000, Ashcroft was suddenly filled with anger about the injustices of the U.S. justice system.

This from the man who said earlier this year that his "message" to anyone who questions the Justice Department's witch-hunt of immigrants is: "Your tactics only aid terrorists."

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Victim of the witch-hunt

Rabih Haddad had only a few dates to break his fast at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. His wife shoved the pieces of fruit into his pocket as three INS agents took Haddad from his Ann Arbor, Mich., apartment on December 14.

The respected cleric and founder of one of the largest Muslim charities in the U.S. has been behind bars ever since.

Want to know why? So would Rabih Haddad.

Though they won't say so for the record, U.S. officials apparently believe that the charity Haddad founded, the Global Relief Foundation, has ties to terrorism. The Treasury Department froze Global Relief's accounts on the day that Haddad was arrested, and FBI agents ransacked the foundation's headquarters in a Chicago suburb--at the same time as NATO "peacekeepers" were raiding its field offices half a world away in Albania and Kosovo.

They found nothing--not a shred of evidence in North America or Europe to tie Haddad, the charity or any of its staff to terrorism. "It seems that the government is concocting a case as it moves along," Haddad's lawyer, Ashraf Nubani, said at a January panel discussion in Ann Arbor. "This is like Alice in Wonderland--first a sentence, then maybe a trial."

The only possible excuse left for holding Haddad is a minor visa violation that immigration lawyers say would typically be taken care of by mail. Yet Haddad has spent nearly all of the past three months in solitary confinement--left in his cell for 23 hours a day. When he was allowed to leave it, he was shackled--even to visit with his children.

When authorities transferred Haddad from Ann Arbor to Chicago in January, his visits with his family were restricted to just four hours a month, and his phone time to one 15-minute call a month.

But the worst was still to come. In late January, when Haddad's wife, Salma al-Rashaid, returned home from a visit to see Haddad, she found a cruel surprise waiting--a letter from the INS informing her that she and three of her four young children will be deported.

With support from activists and community members in Ann Arbor and Chicago, Haddad and his family are fighting back. During her January visit to Chicago, Salma and Haddad's brother Mazan spoke out at a demonstration of 125 people to demand that Rabih Haddad be freed.

This and other protests are having an effect. Last week, officials offered to allow Haddad out of solitary confinement, and his visiting hours and phone calls were extended.

Still, the fact that Rabih Haddad remains in jail at all is an outrage. We have to oppose this terrible injustice.

Free Rabih Haddad!

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"We have to stand up for our rights"

Maybe a few bent civil liberties and some "racial profiling" are prices worth paying to stop terrorism. That's the popular justification for the witch-hunt of immigrant detainees--whatever legal rhetoric Ashcroft and his gang may hide behind.

But with unknown thousands of young Arab men detained and not a single one charged with any crime connected to September 11, the justification is wearing thin. And more importantly, it's easier said if you don't have family or friends who were taken away months ago for no apparent reason--and haven't been heard from since.

"The detentions and the kidnappings in the middle of the night have created a complete climate of fear in the communities being targeted," says Subash Kateel, of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), a New York-based group that has organized protests to put pressure on the INS. "Detentions are being used by the government to make these communities so scared that they won't speak out."

Kateel and other organizers say that their groups receive calls all the time from relatives of the detained--but that family and friends are often afraid to speak out. This is one reason why protests against Ashcroft's "disappearances" have been small so far.

But this is beginning to change. In New York City, weekly demonstrations outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn--where activists believe that 30 to 40 detainees from the September 11 investigation are being held--have doubled in size to 200 or more in the last several weeks.

What's more, says Debbie Almontaser, one of the protest organizers, the demonstrations are becoming more multiracial. "Slowly but surely, more people from other communities have been coming out--African Americans, Latinos, as well as South Asians and Muslims," Almontaser told Socialist Worker.

"It shows that these groups are trusting the larger community. They see now that people are behind them--that they aren't alone anymore and that they can come out and stand up for their rights."

Meanwhile, DRUM has organized demonstrations at the INS Detention Center in Passaic, N.J. The group has made connections with detainees inside--and has gotten investigators from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch into the facility, which they were officially banned from by the INS. In other cities, too, activists are taking up the fight. Ashcroft and his fellow witch-hunters are exploiting fear to scapegoat a vulnerable minority. But their attack on a few is aimed at all of us. We can't let them get away with it.

Shaun Harkin, Lucy Herschel, Alan Maass and Lee Wengraf contributed to this article.