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Arabs Viewed as Dangerous By Definition?

by Amira Howeidy Al-Ahram

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 to combat 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 resignation to 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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