Help PMA grow | Petition forms | Site map | PMA main page
26 February 2002
Since 11 September last year, up to 2,000 people in the United States have been detained without trial, or charge, or even legal rights. The fate of most is unknown. Andrew Gumbel investigates a scandal that shames the land of the free.
They came for Rabih Haddad in the afternoon, as his family was getting ready to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Three men from the Immigration and Naturalization Service took him away from the apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that he shared with his wife and four children. His wife frantically shoved a few dates into his pockets so that he would have something to break his fast as he headed off to jail.
That was 14 December, more than two months ago. Since that time, Haddad, a widely respected religious leader and founding member of one of the United States' largest Muslim charities, the Global Relief Foundation, has been held in solitary confinement, first in Ann Arbor and then at a federal facility in Chicago. He is in his cell, alone, for 23 hours a day. Every time he leaves, either to exercise in a special high-security cage or to take one of his thrice-weekly showers, he is handcuffed.
At first he was allowed to see his family for four hours a week; now that has been reduced to just four hours a month, and on one recent occasion his wife and children were turned away without explanation. Personal phone calls are restricted to 15 minutes per month.
And yet Haddad, a Lebanese citizen who was educated in the United States, has been charged with no crime. According to the Treasury Department the only branch of government to give any explanation whatsoever he and his charity are suspected of links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida organization. But no evidence has been publicly forthcoming to substantiate the claim and no formal accusation has been made against him.
On the day he was arrested, Global Relief's assets were frozen by the Treasury Department and its headquarters in Bridgeview, Illinois a suburb of Chicago was raided by 15 FBI agents, who seized every last piece of computer and video equipment, as well as the entire archive of office records. At the same time, the charity's field offices in Albania and Kosovo were raided in similar fashion by NATO troops and two of their operatives hauled off into custody for several weeks. The charity's executive director, Mohamad Chehade, was questioned at his home for two hours and, according to his lawyer, watched helplessly as field officers stripped his dwelling of paperwork, ripped open the Ramadan presents that were due to be opened that night, tore up the furniture and even confiscated his daughter's computer games. Chehade has since stated in court papers that he was never shown a search warrant.
After more than 10 weeks of investigation, neither Mohamad Chehade nor any of Global Relief's other full-time employees in the United States has been detained or accused of wrongdoing. In fact, the only ostensible reason for Haddad to be behind bars is a minor visa irregularity. The tourist visa he used to enter the country most recently in 1998 expired after six months, and at the time of his arrest he and his wife were in the process of applying for permanent resident status, in accordance with a visa amnesty law passed in the dying days of the Clinton administration.
This is far from the first case of an Arab or south-Asian national being rounded up and subjected to indefinite detention in the wake of the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington. The Justice Department acknowledged the arrest of 1,200 people before it stopped releasing numbers in November; human rights groups believe the total number could be as high as 2,000. But Haddad's case is perhaps the most troubling of all because of the sheer severity of his treatment and the shockingly abrupt suspension of his rights to due legal process. Government lawyers have refused to spell out what evidence, if any, they have against him, saying that they do not have to under the Bush administration's stiff new anti-terrorism law passed in late October, the so-called Patriot Act. The US Attorney's office in Chicago refused all comment.
The court proceedings in his case have been so secret that even Haddad has been barred from attending; he has had to watch them on video from his jail cell, without the right of participation. And his visa irregularity is so minor that most immigration experts agree it would, under any other circumstances, be settled by an exchange of letters and the payment of a modest fine.
Haddad's case has caused barely a blip in mainstream public opinion or the media in the United States, in part because of the prevailing mood of unquestioning indulgence towards law enforcement agencies as they seek to prevent further atrocities on US soil. When reports first surfaced, last autumn, of Arab men being picked up on minor visa irregularities, arrested, shackled, denied access to lawyers and families for days on end and, in some cases, getting beaten or even dying in custody, the general attitude was; this is an emergency, mistakes will be made, it is the price we have to pay.
The extremity of Haddad's circumstances has nevertheless outraged Michigan's 350,000-strong Arab community, who have rallied round Haddad's wife, Salma al-Rushaid, and provided her with financial support as she fights for her husband's freedom. It has also won Haddad some sorely needed friends in high places.
"The treatment of Rabih Haddad by the Immigration and Naturalization Service over the past several weeks has highlighted everything that is abusive and unconstitutional about our government's scapegoating of immigrants in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack," the Michigan congressman John Conyers said in a recent statement. Conyers, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, was himself barred entry to the courtroom during one of Haddad's recent hearings. He and several dozen supporters were forced to sit out on the pavement outside the courthouse.
It is hard not to draw parallels with the scandalous case of Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwanese-born scientist accused of passing US nuclear secrets to the Chinese, who spent 10 months in solitary confinement without charge before the government admitted it had no case against him. Like Lee, Haddad finds himself powerless before the great catch-all invocation of national security. As with Lee, his detention threatens to be indefinite. And, as with Lee, one has to ask: if this is not some terrible miscarriage of justice, why is the government being so reticent about its information?
"Unfortunately, this whole thing is very political," says Haddad's lawyer, Ashraf Nubani. "Global Relief is still not on any list of terrorist organizations. Its assets were only blocked pursuant to the emergency powers granted to the President. They froze the assets, and now they are trying to concoct the case."
Mrs al-Rushaid, who testified recently before Conyers's congressional committee, is equally outspoken. "If they have no charges against my husband, they should be done with him and let him go home," she said in a phone interview from Chicago, where she traveled with her children to see him last Friday for another Islamic holiday, the Eid al-Adha. "What do they want with him? They should say it now or, at least, if it is going to take some time to make their case, they should send him back to Michigan so I can see him more often. Why torture him like this? The inhuman aspect is amazing."
Mrs al-Rushaid described how she and her four children crowded around the intercom phone to speak to Rabih Haddad, who was separated from them by a thick glass partition lined with bars. She begged the guard on duty at least to let her touch his hand, but he said no. "It wasn't the guard's fault. He said there was a camera trained on us and he did not want to jeopardize his job. But my question is, where's the harm? It is getting really hard to keep seeing my husband like this."
The fear among immigration lawyers is that Haddad's treatment is only a taste of things to come. Armed with the Patriot Act and a barrage of other ad hoc rulings passed in the wake of 11 September, George Bush's ultra-conservative attorney general, John Ashcroft, has shown he intends to push the limits as far as he can. Because of the blanket of secrecy Ashcroft has imposed, it is impossible to know exactly how many people have been detained or deported, or even why. Of the total 2,000 detainees estimated by the American Civil Liberties Union and others, the best guess is that the vast majority have been held on visa irregularities, not terror-related criminal offenses.
Full details have emerged of only a handful of cases. This newspaper previously reported on the case of Al Badr al-Hazmi, a Texas-based Saudi radiologist who was detained for two weeks, one of them without any contact with the outside world, before the FBI acknowledged it had made a mistake. The Washington Post recently wrote about two Pakistani immigrants held for 49 days before being charged with overstaying their visas, while the Wall Street Journal reported the case of Tarek Mohamed Fayad, an Egyptian dentist living in California. He was arrested on 13 September and transferred to the Brooklyn Detention Center in New York City, where he was kept in conditions of such secrecy that it took his lawyer a month to find him. He is believed to be there still.
In New Jersey, a Pakistani truck driver called Anser Mehmood had no contact with his family for three months after he was picked up in early October. Deprived of their only source of income, his wife and four children have been forced to sell every last household appliance and are now heading back to Karachi out of financial necessity even before they know the outcome of Mehmood's case. Another detainee, 55-year-old Mohammed Rafiq Butt, died of heart failure at the Hudson County jail in Kearny, New Jersey, on 23 October.
In some ways, things have calmed down since those panicked days in September and October. A private support group for detainees in Washington called Solidarity USA reports that most of those who manage to hook up with lawyers are gradually managing to get out of detention, either winning the right to stay in the United States or getting the deportation procedure carried out swiftly and efficiently. Things remain grim, however, for those who either cannot afford legal representation or cannot make contact with the outside world from their holding cells.
"I just got a call from an Egyptian gentleman who has been held in the county jail on immigration charges for three months," Nubani says. "He doesn't know when they are going to deport him. He is just one of those 'unnamed persons'. There are literally dozens of people like that."
The Justice Department said recently that the immigration authorities were still holding 327 people in custody in connection with 11 September, well down from the peak last autumn. But that number is likely to go back up again. Last month, Ashcroft issued a so-called "absconders apprehension initiative", in which he earmarked 6,000 Arab men known to have outstayed their visas for immediate deportation a moved denounced by immigration lawyers as blatant discrimination since there are more than 300,000 other people known to be in the United States on expired visas who have not been targeted. Last week, The New York Times reported that the Justice Department had blocked the deportation of 87 detainees cleared for departure by the immigration authorities so it could continue to carry out background checks. No evidence has emerged that any of the 87 was involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.
This heightened prosecutorial zeal has left immigration lawyers and Muslim and Arab lobby groups deeply concerned. Particularly alarming is the increasing reliance on judicial secrecy something that has been a feature of immigration cases since 1996 but was considered, until recently, highly controversial and of dubious constitutional validity. John Ashcroft's department has not only made use of secret evidence in case after case in the past few months; it has also issued an executive ruling, independent of any act of Congress, authorizing the immigration courts to close their proceedings to the outside world.
"[This ruling] is absolutely an outrage, it's got no authority whatsoever," says Marc Van Der Hout, one of the leading immigration lawyers in the United States, based in San Francisco. "As the federal appeals courts have ruled again and again, secret evidence is inherently untrustworthy. The Justice Department is really taking advantage of 11 September 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 the rulings of immigration judges; and ultimately have the Attorney General dictate what happens."
One of the changes of recent months, Van Der Hout says, was to make the Attorney General the final arbiter of immigration cases as well as their chief prosecutor. "He is basically deciding, 'Do I like what I'm saying?' It's an absurd system that eviscerates the rights of immigrants."
The pessimism and anger are echoed in the Arab American community, particularly among those who have brushed up against the immigration courts in the past. "Before 11 September, there was room for debate and challenge," says Imad Hamad of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, who fought and eventually won a case based on secret evidence that sought to tar him as a radical Palestinian militant. "Now it is more dangerous and more complicated. The general mood around the country is that anything is permissible as long as it is justified in the name of safety and security. It's a very unfortunate situation for anyone who is caught in the middle, such as Mr Haddad."
Global Relief was the third major US-based Islamic charity to be caught up in President Bush's anti-terrorist dragnet in the wake of 11 September. In contrast to the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation, which had been investigated by federal authorities for years for suspected links to suicide bombers in the Israeli-occupied territories, its operations had appeared to most observers to be entirely above board. It had a donor base of 20,000 people and disbursed about $5m [£3m] a year to 22 countries, supporting hospitals and schools and providing emergency relief to victims of earthquake, drought and war across the Islamic world. The only question mark came about 18 months ago, when Global Relief's treasurer was questioned by the FBI about a fund-raising event at a Texas mosque that was suspected of having links to Osama bin Laden. According to some reports, Global Relief was temporarily put on a White House list of organizations. that are suspected of terrorist links. But the matter went no further at the time.
After the 11 September outrage, Rabih Haddad went out of his way to condemn the attacks, earning praise from Christian and Jewish leaders in Michigan for his stance. That appeared to count for nothing, however, when the authorities pounced in December. According to Nubani, the immigration service claimed its decision to arrest Haddad had nothing to do with the asset-freezing operation, which just happened to fall on the same day. There was no word on Haddad's whereabouts for 48 hours after his arrest; according to his lawyers, the judge's decision to deny him bail was subsequently justified by the fact that immigration officials found a hunting rifle fully licensed in his apartment.
The co-ordinated NATO swoops on Global Relief's Balkan outposts were even less tender. In Kosovo, KFOR troops in Pristina entered the charity's field office used as a school to teach women English and word processing and arrested two Iraqi nationals, one a doctor and the other an administrator. "One of them was beaten senseless by KFOR troops. For a week he could not control his urine," the Washington lawyer who is representing Global Relief, Roger Simmons, alleges. "It got so bad he asked permission for a holy man to allow him to commit suicide. The request was denied."
The men were held in solitary confinement, Simmons says, spoken to only in English, which they do not understand, and talked into signing documents, also in English. "We don't know what they signed. We were not given a copy, and nor were they." Then, after six weeks in custody, the two men were exonerated and released. There was no apology. Just a few days ago, Simmons adds, KFOR returned Global Relief's documents and said it had permission to resume operations in Kosovo a logistical impossibility as long as the organization's funds remain frozen by the US government.
A KFOR spokesman confirmed the broad timeline of the men's detention, although he insisted they had not been mistreated. "The detainees were held in a secure facility and had access to representation and visitors. All their rights were carefully respected... No one was beaten," the spokesman, Gottfried Salchner, said. In December, a KFOR news release boasted that the Global Relief operation was "another example of KFOR ensuring a safe and secure environment... through dynamic, intelligence-led military operations". Yesterday, even as Lt-Col Salchner acknowledged that KFOR would take no further action against Global Relief, he insisted on NATO's right to use "all means" to combat terrorism.
"To my knowledge, there was no basis for what they did at all," Simmons says. "What has happened to Global Relief is a horrendous story. And from Rabih Haddad's standpoint, it is even worse."
It is far from clear where the US government is going with the case. According to Nubani, government prosecutors at Haddad's most recent hearing last week even acknowledged that they had no criminal charges to bring against him or against the charity, leaving only a deportation proceeding to pursue. Mrs al-Rushaid, meanwhile, has been served with a deportation order of her own, along with three of her four children (the fourth was born in the United States and has citizenship).
Lawsuits are flying in all directions. Global Relief is suing several US media organs for defamation, and has gone to court to press for the return of its assets. Congressman Conyers and the American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, have filed a lawsuit to try to open Haddad's trial hearings to the public. "We have not seen a shred of evidence linking the charity in any way to terrorism," Conyers says in a direct challenge to the Justice Department. "If the government has evidence, they should produce it."
Mrs al-Rushaid says her husband's morale remains strong, despite everything, and that they still believe in America as a country and an ideal. "When we came, it was because of what it stood for equality and freedom for all," she says. "There is a big factor of disappointment, of course. But I still want to live here, still want to be part of this land. Hopefully, it's going to change."