By William Fisher
Since 9/11, millions of words have been written about the ‘terrorists in our midst’. Most congratulated US law enforcement for finding and jailing them. Fewer questioned whether the principles of American human rights and civil liberties were being compromised by an over-zealous government gripped by fear.
But 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 9/11.
In the days and weeks following 9/11, the FBI rounded up and imprisoned thousands of immigrants and visitors to the US. Now, in a new report, the American Civil Liberties Union documents what happened to thirteen of these ‘other victims’ and their families. “Worlds Apart” describes “How Deporting Immigrants After 9/11 Tore Families Apart and Shattered Communities.”
The story of how the US Government 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. Some were kept in solitary confinement for extended periods with no explanation. 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. Still others were arrested after routine traffic stops. For many, it would be days before they could contact their families with their whereabouts and weeks before they could access legal help. The government refused to release the names of people it had detained. Behind bars, many suffered from harassment and even physical abuse.”
Conditions in US detention facilities – America’s most secretive prison system – have been chronicled by Mark Dow, a former employee of a detention facility, in his chilling book, “American Gulag”. These facilities were operated by the US 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 September 11 attacks, the ACLU says, adding, “Yet the Justice Department website still boasts that hundreds of immigrants ‘linked to the September 11 investigation’ have been deported.”
The 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 the stories told in this report, 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 thirteen deportees, whose stories are chronicled in the new ACLU report, are based on interviews with deportees in Pakistan, arranged with the help of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission.
Their stories 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. After September 11, all were caught in a government dragnet that swept up hundreds of Muslims indiscriminately. And all were denied basic rights normally afforded to those detained in the United States and other democratic countries.”
Many, the report says, “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 them 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. Anser Mehmood’s young sons were threatened and teased in their New Jersey school for having a “terrorist” for a father. Haneen is the 14-year-old U.S.-born daughter of Khaled Abu-Shabayek. 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,” she said. “Everyone [in my family], they’re always angry, they’re not happy.” Anza is the nine-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. “
Their communities in the U.S. were negatively affected, 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.”
The ACLU reports that in January 2004, lawyers filed a petition with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of the thirteen 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 petitioners alleged that: “The United States detained petitioners as suspected terrorists even where there was no evidence – let alone credible evidence – that they had engaged in criminal activity of any sort; the United States imprisoned petitioners under a “hold until cleared” policy that effectively imposed a presumption of guilt (under the policy, detainees were held until the FBI decided that they were innocent; compounding the injury, some petitioners were detained even after the FBI had affirmatively cleared them of all charges);the United States’ arbitrary and haphazard arrest and detention policies were directed almost entirely against Muslim men of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent; the United States denied petitioners access to counsel, failed to inform them promptly of the charges against them or to bring them before a judge, and categorically denied them release on bond.”
The UN requested and has received a response to the complaint from the US State Department. It is currently awaiting the UN’s judgment.
The ACLU report concludes: “In the weeks and months after September 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, the report says, “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.”
It adds: “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, like the United States Declaration of Independence, recognizes that every human being has rights, that every person counts. The United States government correctly condemns other countries when they violate the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration. We have to be equally vigilant, however, in making sure that those rights are not violated here at home.”