Eight Weeks in Jail: Life on Ashcroft's Enemies List
Things Ali Al-Maqtari might have expected in America, especially after Sept. 11:
- Attracting suspicion because he's a young Middle Eastern male.
- Funny looks because his American wife wears a Muslim head scarf.
- Doubts about his marriage because the couple wed soon after they met, in accordance with Muslim tradition, which frowns on extended dating.
Things Ali Al-Maqtari probably never expected to happen:
- Spending nearly eight weeks in Tennessee prisons, based on the above suspicions.
- Becoming the star witness at a U.S. Senate hearing last week.
Al-Maqtari, a Yemeni immigrant, and his lawyer, Michael Boyle, testified Dec. 4 before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The subject was "DOJ Oversight: Preserving Our Freedoms While Defending Against Terrorism."
DOJ is the Department of Justice -- the head of which, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, has been dropping daisy-cutters on the Bill of Rights ever since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Al-Maqtari told of being interrogated for 12 hours straight, lied to by the FBI, accused of beating his wife, then locked up with little ability to contact his wife or attorneys, all because Tiffinay Al-Maqtari wore a head scarf to a recruiting center where she enlisted in the Army, and because soldiers found box cutters and New York City postcards in their car.
Boyle testified about new rules and practices that the Justice Department has cooked up, aimed largely at Middle Eastern or Muslim immigrants. All go far beyond the measures that Congress adopted in the post-September 11 USA PATRIOT Act. And all, Boyle says, are both illegal and unnecessary.
The two got a friendly reception at the Senate hearing, Boyle says, and Al-Maqtari's story made headlines in USA Today, the Boston Globe and National Public Radio. But you have to wonder whether anyone was listening, besides reporters: Although technically a hearing of the full Judiciary Committee, the session drew just four senators -- two of whom, according to Boyle, made only token appearances.
Two days later, Ashcroft appeared before the same committee and blasted his critics. His policies preserve civil liberties, he said, and those who disagree are pitting "Americans against immigrants, citizens against non-citizens. ... Your tactics only aid terrorists. ... They give ammunition to America's enemies."
Ashcroft's enemy list is evidently quite long. Through the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, his Justice Department has detained more than 1,100 people for questioning in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks.
Samir Khalaf was one of those 1,100. A Palestinian who worked at a gas station in Greenwich, Conn., he had a bad heart and bad timing. He went to the hospital with chest pains on Sept. 12. People thought he was acting suspicious. They called the police, who called the FBI. After his emergency angioplasty, the feds took him -- against doctors' advice, his friends told the Hartford Courant -- to the Hartford lockup.
There he remained, charged with failure to get a work permit. He was in the country legally and was quickly cleared of terrorism suspicion, Khalaf's lawyer told the Courant. (The lawyer, Michael Moore of Springfield, Mass., didn't return phone calls.) An immigration judge ruled on Oct. 3 that he could go home to his family in Gaza. But the INS wouldn't let him go until November.
Moore says that he is involved with four other men -- three Pakistanis and an Indian -- who are also among the 1,100. They were arrested Nov. 25 after a guy told police he'd overheard two "Arab" men talking in a bar about delivering letters to "Kathy," a Vietnamese woman in New York. Vietnamese immigrant Kathy Nguyen had recently died of anthrax inhalation.
The informant flunked a lie detector test. Moore, who represents the two men allegedly involved in the conversation, says it never happened. Two other men were arrested because they happened to be present when the feds came for the first two, Moore told the Associated Press.
One of the four was released on bond last week. Another was trying to raise bond; a third has a hearing scheduled for this week, 17 days after his arrest.
At the hearing where Al-Maqtari and Boyle testified, an assistant attorney general reported that the feds had 608 immigrants in custody on charges "growing out of our investigation into the Sept. 11 attacks."
Only 55 of those are accused of crimes; the others are all held on immigration charges. And most, if not all, of the criminal charges are unrelated to terrorism. In fact, Justice Department officials have previously said they suspect only 10-15 detainees of connections to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network, believed to be behind the Sept. 11 carnage.
The assistant attorney general, Viet Dinh, didn't reveal how many people have been -- like Al-Maqtari -- held and then released. He said he didn't know how many immigrants the government has held for more than 48 hours without charging them.
The Bush administration uses wartime secrecy the way the Taliban used burqas: to cover as much as possible. The Justice Department refuses to identify those it has locked up on immigration charges. It won't say where they're being held or whether they have lawyers. In some cases, it won't even tell lawyers where their clients are.
Their bond hearings in immigration court are typically closed to public and press. In Al-Maqtari's case and many others, the government offered no evidence of any connection to terrorism, yet asked an immigration judge to hold him without bond.
When the judge disagreed and set a $50,000 bond -- extremely high for a minor immigration charge -- the feds got the judge to stay the bond ruling while they appealed it. Their reason: The FBI "cannot at this time rule out the possibility that [Al-Maqtari] is somehow linked to, or possesses knowledge of, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon."
"I spent almost eight weeks in jail, and my wife lost her Army career, because people were angry and nervous and I am from Yemen," Al-Maqtari told the Judiciary Committee. "I have been back together with my wife for almost a month, and our lives are healing, but I hope that you will protect other innocent people from the INS."
Ali Al-Maqtari came to the United States in June 2000 from France on a tourist visa, visiting family and friends. Trained as a French teacher, he got admitted to a teacher certification and applied for a visa extension.
Then he met Tiffinay Hughes, a young, North Carolina-born convert to Islam, in an Internet chat room. They soon agreed to meet and soon after that, on June 1 of this year, got married. They filed a marriage application with the INS.
Tiffinay, a National Guardswoman, decided to enlist in the Army. In August, she was told she'd be stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., starting in mid-September.
On Sept. 12, a recruiter told her to pick up her orders at a recruiting center the next day. The couple went together, Tiffinay wearing her hejab, or head scarf. A recruiting officer told her not to wear it at Fort Campbell.
Ali and Tiffinay packed up her car and drove to Fort Campbell, arriving on Sept. 15 at what they expected to be their home for at least a year. But at the gate -- where, they later learned, Tiffinay's picture had been posted -- soldiers ordered them out of the car, emptied it, searched it with bomb-sniffing dogs, then took the couple away to be separately interrogated by FBI, INS and Army investigators for 12 hours straight.
"An INS agent screamed at me that I was illegal and could be deported immediately," Ali Al-Maqtari told the Judiciary Committee, "and he refused to listen to me when I told him about my applications. ... An FBI investigator ... also told me that the Springfield, Mass., recruiting center where Tiffinay had received her orders had been blown up by terrorists 20 minutes after we left it. ... They told her that we were suspicious because she was wearing a hejab and we had been speaking in a foreign language. French was the only language other than English that we had spoken together, but it must have made them nervous. The investigators said many, many times that our marriage was fake, and that Tiffinay must be married to me because I was abusing her. ... They also made many negative remarks about Islam, things like Islam being the religion of beating and mistreating women."
After three days, the INS charged Al-Maqtari with overstaying his visa and began deportation proceedings. But after Boyle's office faxed copies of his marriage application, authorities told both Al-Maqtaris and the lawyer that Ali would be released in a day or two.
It didn't happen. The INS first said he could post $50,000 bond, then changed its mind-without telling him, Boyle says. After a hearing, on Oct. 1 an immigration judge set a $50,000 bond. But because the judge agreed to stay that order, Al-Maqtari sat in a segregated prison unit, allowed to call his wife and lawyer just once a week, until the end of October. Then, the judge finally agreed to let him go, pointing out that after six weeks, the FBI had yet to make any detailed allegations or offer any criminal evidence against Al-Maqtari. His 27th birthday passed while he was in prison.
Meanwhile Tiffinay, after her initial interrogation, was followed around Fort Campbell by three guards, day and night. Her picture was on posters all over the base. After a couple of weeks of that treatment, she agreed to take an honorable discharge.
At the Senate hearing, Assistant Attorney General Dinh insisted that the immigrants who've been rounded up since Sept. 11 have been treated fairly and legally. They all have access to lawyers, he said; they all get booklets listing their rights. "We will not permit, and we have not permitted, our values to fall victim to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11."
Gerald Goldstein tells a different story.
A lawyer from San Antonio, Texas, Goldstein submitted to the Judiciary Committee a statement about the "Kafkaesque" experience of fifth-year radiology resident Al-Badr Al Hazmi. Federal agents went to Al Hazmi's house in the early morning hours of Sept. 12, searched the place for six hours, then took him to jail. As soon as he was allowed a phone call, Al Hazmi called Goldstein. Mid-conversation, an FBI agent took the phone from Al Hazmi and refused to tell the lawyer where his client was being held, or why. After five days, numerous unanswered phone calls and several letters, Goldstein finally learned that the doctor was jailed in New York. It was another two days before a lawyer could get permission to see him.
Meanwhile, the feds interrogated Al Hazmi, ignoring his requests to call his lawyer and his wife, Goldstein wrote. The FBI finally cleared Al Hazmi and let him go home after 12 days in jail.
If the feds hadn't stonewalled, Goldstein wrote, he could have provided documentation clearing Al Hazmi right away. Not only did investigators violate Al Hazmi's rights; they wasted their own valuable time.
These don't look like isolated incidents, Boyle told the sparse Senate panel. They look more like "part of a pattern of excessive detention and disrespect for the rights of noncitizens." Among the examples he cited:
- Federal officers arrested 11 Israelis at gunpoint in Ohio and charged them with violating their tourist visas by selling trinkets at shopping malls. The Israelis say law enforcement officials told them they didn't need lawyers, who would only make their detention "longer" and "more complicated." One was asked "how much torture" he could stand. The government said they were suspected of terrorist activity but produced no evidence, not even for the judge to inspect privately.
- Agents arrested an Egyptian dentist in California on immigration charges. When friends came to post bond, they were told it had been rescinded. Officers held one of the friends for eight hours of questioning. About a week later, the FBI transferred the dentist to a Brooklyn jail. Neither his friends nor the Egyptian embassy could find out where he was. The friends hired a lawyer. It took a month before she could track down the missing dentist. He's still in custody, Boyle said last week.
No wonder the staid New York Times likened these imprisonments to the "disappearances" of government critics in Peron's Argentina. Then there are the people who, while never suspected of terrorist links, get swept up in the dragnet. In immigration court recently in Hartford, Boyle watched as a man from Thailand was presented on charges of violating his status. The judge asked how he'd been picked up. His answer:
"I work with a guy named Muhammad."
Josh Mamis is the editor of the New Haven Advocate.