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December 16, 2004

Families the 'Other Victims' of 9/11 Round-Up

by William Fisher

NEW YORK - Since 9/11, millions of words have been written about the "terrorists in our midst." Most congratulated U.S. law enforcement for finding and jailing them. Fewer questioned whether the principles of American human rights and civil liberties were being compromised by an overzealous government gripped by fear.

But according to the American Civil Liberties Union, both sides of this controversy have usually overlooked something important in this delicate minuet of constitutional protections versus another terrorist attack: the human faces of "the other victims" of the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.

In the days and weeks following those incidents, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) rounded up and imprisoned thousands of immigrants and visitors to the United States. Now, in a new report, "Worlds Apart," the ACLU documents what happened to 13 of these targets and "how deporting immigrants after 9/11 tore families apart and shattered communities."

The story of how Washington responded to 9/11 has been written about extensively, but remains relatively little-known. The short version, from the ACLU report, is that the United States "incarcerated petitioners in degrading and inhumane conditions."

"Although the immigrants generally were detained on non-criminal immigration charges, many were kept in cells for 23 hours a day and were made to wear hand and leg shackles when leaving their cells.... Lights were left on 24 hours a day, immigrants were denied the use of blankets, and many were denied telephone calls and visits with family members."

For many, says the ACLU, "the nightmare began with their arrest. FBI and immigration officials dragged some people out of their houses in the middle of the night in front of frightened wives and children. Others were picked up for being in the wrong place," like the man "arrested by agents who had come looking for his roommate but took him instead."

Conditions in U.S. detention facilities – the country's most secretive prison system – have been chronicled by Mark Dow, a former employee of a detention facility, in his chilling book, American Gulag. "Long before Abu Ghraib, and even before Sept. 11, detainees in America's immigration prisons were being stripped, beaten, and sexually abused," he writes.

These facilities were operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), now part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

None of the thousands of people detained by the INS were found guilty of any terrorism-related offense or connected in any way with the 9/11 attacks, the ACLU says, adding, "Yet the Justice Department Web site still boasts that hundreds of immigrants 'linked to the Sept. 11 investigation' have been deported."

The ACLU report charges "the government's unlawful policies had profound effects not only on the people who were unlawfully imprisoned but also on their families and communities. Families were torn apart. Communities were shattered."

"And the stories told in this report are just a sample. For each of [them], there are hundreds of similar stories that haven't been told. Children separated from fathers, wives separated from husbands, parents separated from sons."

The stories of the 13 deportees chronicled in the new report are based on interviews with deportees in Pakistan, arranged with the help of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission.

They vary widely. Says the report: "Some men drove cabs, some delivered pizzas, and still others pumped gas. Some spoke Urdu and others Arabic. Some came from tiny villages, others from major, cosmopolitan cities. Some had children who attended public schools, speaking perfect English and playing basketball with American friends."

"Others supported their families in Pakistan or Jordan, sending money for school fees, home repairs or life-saving medicines. Many had been here for years, others for only a few months."

But, says the ACLU, "the stories of these men are similar in important ways. All came to the United States seeking a better life for themselves and their families. All were Muslim, from South Asia or the Middle East."

Many, adds the report, "have been deported to countries where they haven't lived in years, and where unemployment rates are high and salaries are low. Many have been harassed because of their connections to the U.S. or taunted for being deported."

For example, "Sadek Awaed's friends in Jersey City, New Jersey, stopped speaking to him after the FBI questioned him and suggested that he was involved with terrorists. Asylum-seeker Benamar Benatta, who is still behind bars in New York, worries that the charges will haunt him if he ends up being returned to Algeria."

"Haneen is the 14-year-old U.S.-born daughter of Khaled Abu-Shabayek," continues the report. "Her family moved to Jordan in 2002 after her father was detained and deported. 'I can't take it anymore, and I'm very angry', the girl said. 'Everyone [in my family], they're always angry, they're not happy.'"

"Anza is the 9-year-old daughter of Khurram Altaf. For the first time this year, she will not be able to attend the special school that accommodates her hearing disability – such schools don't exist in Pakistan, where she moved after her father was deported."

Deportees' communities in the United States were damaged, too, the report says. "Neighborhoods that were vibrant and full are suddenly half-empty and quiet. Merchants are struggling; many have been forced out of business. And people are scared that they could be the next to be awakened in the middle of the night by immigration officials."

Dalia Hashad, an ACLU lawyer based in Washington, told IPS she believes the U.S. government's treatment of Arabs and Muslims "is likely to get worse, not better."

"Now that the Bush administration is not facing reelection, we can expect increased harassment of Arabs and Muslims, citizens and non-citizens alike. Under the new attorney general, it is likely there will be more deportations and more 'terror-related' criminal prosecutions."

"The Justice Department and the DHS immigration authorities claim they are 'reaching out' to these communities, and trying to hire them as FBI agents, but at the same time [they are] arresting its members," added Hashad.

The ACLU reports that in January 2004 lawyers filed a petition with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of the 13 men who had been detained in the United States, and whose stories are told in the new report. All but one of the petitioners has now been deported. The UN's response to the petition is pending.

The ACLU report concludes: "In the weeks and months after Sept. 11, the people whose stories are told in this report did not count. The United States government arrested them without suspicion, imprisoned them without charge, and abused them without consequence. All of this took place in secret. To this day, the government still refuses to release the names of the people who were imprisoned."

In a democratic society, it adds, "the government should not be permitted to sweep human beings under the rug, to pretend that they don't count. The government should not be permitted to make people disappear."

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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