Saturday, July 02, 2005

What happened to Muslim detainees from Texas after 9/11?

As America prepares to celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, it's worth recalling for a moment that personal freedoms are still the basis for our democratic system's ultimate legitimacy, and that the US Bill of Rights still needs protecting in the age of the War on Terror.

Few documents provide a more vivid reminder of those truths than a new report by national ACLU and Human Rights Watch, which details the stories of scores of muslim or middle eastern individuals who were detained as so-called "material witnesses" by the federal government in the period immediately following 9/11. You may recall that after 9/11, hundreds of people were rounded up in a nationwide dragnet and held as material witnesses without being charged with a crime. We never had a lot of information about those Texas material witness cases, so I culled Texas-related excerpts from the report below:

Dr. Albader al-Hazmi

On September 12, 2001, Dr. Albader al-Hazmi, who was living with his wife and young children, woke up in his house to five FBI agents with guns drawn. A medical doctor doing his residency in San Antonio, Texas, al-Hazmi had no previous criminal record or interaction with the FBI. The government based its arrest of al-Hazmi on the fact that he shared the last name of one of the hijackers and had been in phone contact with someone at the Saudi Arabian Embassy with the last name “bin Laden” (which is a common Arabic name). ... He was detained for two weeks in jails in Texas and New York before being released. He never testified before a grand jury or court.

Anwar al-Mirabi

Federal authorities arrested Anwar al-Mirabi on September 13, 2001 in his Arlington, Texas apartment complex after his neighbors called the FBI to report that he seemed “suspicious.” The government first held al-Mirabi for overstaying his visa. On November 13, 2001, it arrested him on a material witness warrant. Neither al-Mirabi nor his lawyer, Gerald Kleinschmidt, was permitted to see the affidavit supporting the warrant.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Dallas initially denied the government’s request to seal the proceedings and records. The judge put the case on the docket and held that the government could not continue to detain al-Mirabi, because he was not a flight risk. In what may have been an effort to avoid complying with the court’s order, the Justice Department moved the proceedings, the records, and al-Mirabi to Chicago, outside the jurisdiction of the Dallas court. Although al-Mirabi remained on the public docket in Texas, all the records from Texas were transferred to Chicago. But there is no trace of al-Mirabi in the federal courts in the northern district of Illinois—no records, no appearance in any dockets, no notice of any public hearings. Gerald Kleinschmidt told a newspaper reporter that al-Mirabi’s material witness records were “all closed to the public, closed to the press, closed to his family. I guess these people have no rights at all.”

The Department of Justice refused to give Kleinschmidt any information about why it believed al-Mirabi had material information to a criminal proceeding. “Nobody can tell me, and I’m supposed to represent him … I had no idea what crime he was supposed to testify for, or if there was even a grand jury investigation when he was arrested.” The government held al-Mirabi for six months without having him testify. Kleinschmidt, who had worked for seven years as a federal prosecutor, told HRW/ACLU: I’ve never seen a case like this. It’s the emotional issue of terrorism—if they were somehow involved in hatching the plan, the government has to have some information to show the judge by [probable cause] that they participated in it. There is no longer a line in the court between being involved in a conspiracy or being a witness.

After being jailed nine months, al-Mirabi applied for and was granted voluntary departure and returned to Saudi Arabia with his wife and children. He was never charged with a crime.

Ayub Ali Khan and Mohammed Azmath
On September 12, 2001, the FBI arrested Ayub Ali Khan and Mohammed Azmath at the Amtrak railroad station in San Antonio, Texas. The two friends from India had just lost their old jobs working together as managers of a newsstand in New Jersey’s Newark Penn Station and were relocating to Texas for new work. They had begun their trip to Texas on a plane that was scheduled to fly from Newark, New Jersey to San Antonio, Texas on September 11, 2001. Because of the attacks that day, their plane was grounded in St. Louis, Missouri. Azmath and Khan completed their journey to San Antonio by train, like many other passengers. Shortly before the train reached San Antonio, federal agents approached Azmath and Khan on the train based on a “suspicious tip” from other passengers.

The government arrested Azmath and Khan after they discovered they possessed around $5000 cash, box-cutters, and “a prayer rug and other religious paraphernalia.” In other words, the FBI detained the two men because they had some money, had an instrument commonly used by people who work in newsstands among other occupations, and were Muslim non-citizens. Surely, but for the last attribute, they would never have been detained.

The FBI first held Khan as a visa violator but later obtained a material witness warrant for his arrest. Both he and Azmath, who was arrested on an immigration charge, were held in solitary confinement in the high security Special Housing Unit of MDC Brooklyn for almost a year.

The government never charged them with any terrorist-related offenses. Instead, the government eventually charged them with credit card fraud, based in part on statements Khan and Azmath made without the presence of counsel. During a court hearing in April 2002, Khan’s attorney argued against his continued detention:

"Why is this defendant being held in such close custody, when there is no terrorism case against him and it has not been shown in any credible, palpable way that this defendant was involved in an attempt to hijack an airliner to crash into the World Trade Center? … Yes, he’s a Muslim, he’s from India. His family lives in Hyderabad. The defendant has no criminal record, no pilot training, none of the indicators that would suggest that the defendant is involved in planning some kind of heinous act against buildings or airliners, none of that in this case.

Khan’s mother took his case to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which ruled that the United States had violated international prohibitions against arbitrary detention by holding Khan and Azmath without a sufficient basis. After almost a year in detention, Khan was convicted of credit card fraud and given time served. At his sentencing hearing, he contested his arrest:

"Your honor, I must say, my arrest was executed without probable cause based upon entirely bare suspicion and racial profiling. Single me out, a Muslim, as a terrorist. Your Honor, I am not a terrorist."

Khan and Azmath were deported in January 2003.

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