Civil Liberties Jeopardized as Arabs, Muslims Find Themselves Caught in Web of Federal Investigations

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Civil Liberties Jeopardized as Arabs, Muslims Find Themselves Caught in Web of Federal Investigations

Roxane Assaf is a free-lance writer based in Chicago.

When Rebecca Lewis and Mohamed Kadhri got married on Sept. 27, they had no idea that four days later they would be planning to leave the country. But it wasn't the honeymoon they had in mind.

According to the newlyweds, Mohamed dropped Rebecca off at the Detroit airport, where she is an airline customer service agent. Thinking he had left his house keys with her, he left his car at the curb, with the hazard lights blinking, and ran to catch his wife before she made her way through security. But he was too late; she was gone.

Then, to his relief, Mohamed discovered the house keys in his pocket.

Returning to his car, however, his relief began to subside as he found a uniformed police officer examining the vehicle. Attempting to avoid a ticket, Mohamed explained to the officer that he was just about to leave. "He looked at me like I scared him," said Mohamed in his soft Tunisian-accented English. "I said, `I'm sorry. I'm going home now. I'm gonna leave right now.'"

The officer was not finished, however. He asked Mohamed for his license. Checking it, he then asked for proof that Mohamed was using his real name. Mohamed showed an ID. The officer asked if he was a U.S. citizen. Mohamed replied, "No."

"Green card?"

"No."

The officer then took the car keys away, Mohamed said, and ordered him to sit in the car. While Mohamed sat for 20 minutes, the police officer used his walkie-talkie to call an Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agent. When the agent arrived, Mohamed was ordered out of the car. The government official identified himself as an INS agent and referred to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. "I have nothing to do with that," said Mohamed.

"Your name is Mohamed?" asked the agent.

"Yes," Mohamed answered.

"Are you sure this is your name?"

"Yes."

"You're a Muslim?"

"Yes."

The agent then asked Mohamed if he could check his pockets. Mohamed complied. The agent checked Mohamed's pockets and asked him to turn around. When he did so, Mohamed found himself being handcuffed so tightly he pleaded with the agent to loosen the cuffs. "`You'll be alright,' he told me," said Mohamed. The agent then told him to sit on the ground.

It is exactly this kind of scenario that American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is working to prevent. Prior to Oct. 26, when President George Bush signed HR3162, dubbed the "USA PATRIOT Act" (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing the Appropriate Tools Required To Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism), the ACLU had warned Congress that the new provisions would lead to abuses by the attorney general and federal law enforcement officials granted new permanent powers. The bill passed almost unanimously, however--even though, according to the ACLU, many legislators could not have had the chance even to read the modified bill because of anthrax-related building closures.

Tim Edgar, legal counsel at the ACLU office in Washington, DC, believes the legislation "puts people in fear just when the FBI needs cooperation. It isn't productive, and it's going to instill a lot of mistrust for a long time."

Areas such as Detroit, Edgar added, where great numbers of Arabs live, would undoubtedly be targeted for investigation.

The ACLU's list of concerns includes the rights of non-citizens who are found to be in violation of immigration rules, such as overstaying a visa. Ordinarily, these individuals would not be deportable for terrorism. Under the new laws, however, they could be subjected to detention--possibly indefinite--on the attorney general's finding of "reasonable grounds to believe" they are involved in terrorism or in any activity that poses a danger to national security or the safety of the community or any person.

Michigan Sen. …