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Dangerous by Definition..

Dangerous by definition: The quest for basic information on thousands of detained Arabs in the US continues. Amira Howeidy tries to see through the fog
It is no longer surprising, nor is it ironic. In the US, many observers, rights activists and civil liberties groups are failing even to wonder at the glaring paradoxes of America's readiness to shatter away its once established image as a protector of freedoms.





And wonder they might. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) is refusing to disclose information on more than 1,000 detainees -- largely men of Middle Eastern descent -- arrested in connection with 11 September. Now, 18 US- based rights groups have decided they will not take silence for an answer.





On 5 December, they filed a law suit against the DOJ under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) demanding the disclosure of basic information on those who, in the eyes of many rights activists, have been "kidnapped" by the US government.





Exactly how many have been detained or arrested? Who are they? What are their nationalities? Why where they arrested? These and many other questions need to be answered, as concern over the fate of these individuals rises. "Nobody has this information -- which is why we filed the law suit," according to Carol Khawly, legal advisor to the Arab-American Anti- Discrimination Committee (ADC), one of the plaintiffs





Here is what we do know. Many, if not the majority, of these individuals are of Arab origins. "Thousands" have been rounded up amidst an extremely foggy environment where everything is kept secret from everyone even from officials representing the countries of these individuals. One of the objectives behind the Egyptian foreign minister's visit to the US last week was voicing official concern about the Egyptians who have been detained since 11 September. According to George Hermina, a lawyer who is representing the Egyptian Embassy in the US, Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher specifically asked for a list of all the detained Egyptians "but by the end of last week, to the best of my knowledge, he hadn't got it," Hermina told Al-Ahram Weekly.





According to informed sources, Saudi officials expressed similarly serious concerns over the blocking of information on detained Saudis, who are believed to constitute the majority of those arrested. Other nationalities that have been rounded up include Yemenis, Lebanese and Palestinians. Although no information on the number of Egyptians has been revealed, Hermina suspects that they number "less than 100."





A judge has already been assigned to hear the lawsuit but it is not known when the case will be resolved. "The Justice Department consistently refuses to provide the information necessary to guarantee to the American public that those jailed since 11 September are being accorded the constitutional protections guaranteed to all people in America by the Bill of Rights," according to Steven R Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.





Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies -- another of the 18 plaintiffs -- went even further. "Since we first asked for this information, there is mounting evidence that secrecy is being invoked to shield serious violations of individual rights and not for legitimate investigative purposes," she said. "Instead of simple announcements by the attorney-general claiming that they are respecting the constitution, we need evidence that will show whether that is true."





David Sobel, who is acting as general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that this case "involves a matter of extraordinary public interest and presents one of the strongest rationales for expeditious disclosure ever presented to the federal courts."





The action was filed in federal district court in Washington. Among the plaintiffs are several reputable organisations including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Center for National Security Studies and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Also joining in the filing of the lawsuit are the American-Arab Anti- Discrimination Committee, the Arab American Institute, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Council on American Islamic Relations, Human Rights Watch and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. On 29 October, the plaintiff organisations requested disclosure of detainee information from the Justice Department under the FOIA. They asked for information on the identity of the detainees, where they are being held, the names of their lawyers, which courts are involved, how long the detainees have been held and the nature of any charges filed against them.





In late November, the Justice Department released


information about the detainees which the ACLU described as "partial and fragmentary." For the most part, the information released fell far short of satisfying the FOIA request.





"If the government withholds all the basic information about what it has been doing, it is impossible for the public to assess whether or not the investigation into the crimes of September 11 has been reasonable and effective," said Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American- Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "Democratic government requires that citizens know what the government is doing in their name," he added.





On 6 December -- the day following the filing of the law suit -- US Attorney- General John Ashcroft testified before congress. All he said in relation to the arrested individuals was that "we have waged a deliberate campaign of arrest and detention to remove suspected terrorists who violate the law from our streets. Currently, we have brought criminal charges against 110 individuals, of whom 60 are in federal custody. The INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] has detained 563 individuals on immigration violations."





According to Hermina, "there are no Arabs or Egyptians held without a specific violation of the law." In the many cases he has seen, he described how he has found "students that overstayed their visa in the US, or someone who came to the US on a visitor visa and stayed. Normally the US government doesn't have the resources to put into deporting people that break their visa conditions but because of 11


September, greater attention is being paid to such violations." Police are able to detain more people "and enforce those laws which generally have been overlooked due to budgetary problems and due to lack of interest." Hermina pointed out that, due to the background of those involved in the 11 September attacks, "the government are looking at people of Arab background more carefully."





Although there is no indication that the arrests have stopped -- Carol Khawly, for one, believes they have actually continued -- the DOJ is also pursuing its focused investigation on Arabs in other ways. It is conducting a so-called "voluntary interview programme" involving 5,000 men of Middle Eastern descent. The programme -- which, according to the ADC, "smacks of racial profiling" -- is believed to be an alternative way to question Arabs who reside in the US but have not violated the law, and thus cannot be arrested. Quite how "voluntary" the interviews are remains unknown "because it's a new programme," argues Denyse Sabbagh, a lawyer who is representing one of the detained Arabs.





Sabbagh told Al-Ahram Weekly that this is "a new voluntary interview programme for Middle Eastern men aged between 18 and 33 who have entered the US since January 2000 on non immigrant visas. According to the Justice department, none of those being requested to volunteer for the interviews are considered suspects or associated with the terrorist activities. They simply think it is a way that they might be able to obtain information."





However, Sabbagh pointed out that in a meeting that was held with the FBI and the US attorney in the district, "we asked if they were going to tell those being interviewed that they are allowed to have a lawyer present. The answer was no." The motivation behind this was that "the interviews are voluntary and they didn't want it to seem like an interrogation." In many of these interviews, "they will be asking the person about their family members or friends. A lot of it is going to be who they know and who those people know," Sabbagh said. She noted that the interviewees might be afraid about revealing immigration violations of others but the government "cannot provide assurances that nothing will happen to them."





On 24 November, the Detroit Free Press printed information about the interview programme, based on an eight page memo sent to it by the DOJ.





According to the newspaper, those Arabs who do end up on the list of 5,000 interviewees will be asked questions ranging from whether they sympathise with the 11 September hijackers to where they have travelled and whether they own guns or have scientific training. Information gathered in the interviews, which began last week, is to be entered into an electronic database.





In the memo, Justice Department officials write that the men they are seeking are not criminal suspects and are not obliged to talk. Many of the questions are obvious and to the point, such as whether the interviewee knows anyone connected to the 11 September attacks or knows anyone trained in terrorism. Other questions are clearly intended to elicit information on political leanings and personal travels, however. Interviewers are instructed to ask the men for their phone numbers, and those of their family; whether their educational training includes "scientific expertise;" whether they have visited Afghanistan, or ever been in an "armed conflict."





The men will be asked why they are in the United States and what landmarks they have visited. They will also be asked how they felt when they heard the news of the 11 September attacks, and whether they sympathised with the hijackers. The memo emphasises that interviews will be voluntary, but it says that questioners "should feel free to use all appropriate means of encouraging an individual to cooperate, including reference to any reward money."





Although American officials have not missed a chance to emphasise none of this is directed purposefully at Muslims or Arabs in general, the Arab and Muslim community in the US says it nevertheless suffers from anti-Muslim bigotry. ADC, for example, recently exposed statements made by Republican Congressman Saxby Chambliss, who represents Georgia and is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security. He said that tocombat terrorism, a Georgian sheriff should be turned loose to "arrest every Muslim that comes across the state line."





Although Chambliss said he was "joking," ADC have called for his resignationto offset the wave of hostility directed at Arabs and Muslims since 11 September. As one Arab civil liberties activist said recently, the US authorities seem to regard Arabs as "dangerous by definition."


 
 

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