Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 Dec. 2002 - 1 Jan. 2003
Issue No. 618
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Arab and suspect

It has become commonplace in the US to arrest and detain Arabs, reports Anayat Durrani from Los Angeles

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Demonstrators in front of the federal building in Los Angeles
Large crowds of demonstrators amassed in front of the Federal Building in Los Angeles last week to protest against the arrest of hundreds of foreign-born men who were detained while voluntarily submitting to a special registration process. The arrests were part of a new counter-terrorism initiative by the Bush administration.

Many Arabs and Iranians who showed up to have their photographs and fingerprints taken found themselves unexpectedly detained by the Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) for immigration violations. Those arrested were trying to register with the INS under a new database that tracks foreigners entering and leaving the country on tourist, business and student visas. The Justice Department said on Friday that about 400 people were arrested in Southern California for minor visa violations, many of whom were just waiting for the INS to finish processing their 'green card' applications and residency documents. The men were held for days in crowded jail cells and threatened with deportation as the INS ran background checks and compared names to lists of wanted terrorists. Most have since been released on bail and ordered to appear before immigration judges.

Designated as "Special Registration" by the INS, the programme was implemented by the Department of Justice in response to the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington that took the lives of 3,000 people. After 11 September, the INS began registering and fingerprinting visiting males, mainly from the Middle East, at the country's airports and other ports of entrance. The programme requires certain foreign-born men over the age of 16 and with temporary visas to report to the INS to be interviewed, photographed and fingerprinted. The first deadline applied to an estimated 3,000 male visa holders from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria who were required to report by 16 December.

Activists and immigration attorneys voiced their opposition to the arrests, calling them harassment and racial profiling of Middle Eastern and Arab immigrants. Immigrant advocates say the INS is abusing the civil rights of Middle Easterners while at the same time asking for their help in the 'war on terror'. Some of those detained have complained of abusive treatment by authorities. Critics of the programme say immigrants are being unfairly targeted and the arrest of hundreds of immigrants is likely to have the opposite effect by rousing fear among otherwise law abiding citizens. INS officials have maintained they carried out registration procedures in the appropriate manner and defended their actions, denying any mistreatment of those detained. Groups in favour of the programme say the enforcement of immigration law should have been a priority long before 11 September.

The Department of Justice says the special registration programme is based on a law passed in Congress in 1996 that requires closer monitoring of temporary foreign visitors to the US. The plan is considered a major weapon in the 'war on terror' and Justice Department officials have called the registration requirement a necessary means of safeguarding national security concerns. Two of the 11 September hijackers were in the US on INS-issued student visas. The FBI also believes there are terrorist cells or their supporters operating within the US.

The next registration deadline, for more than 7,000 foreign males from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen is 10 January, according to the Justice Department. Men required to register include those aged 16 and over, who came to the US as non-immigrants before 1 October 2002, and who plan to stay until at least the deadline. Visa holders from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are required to register by 21 February. Those who fail to register face criminal charges and deportation.

On another front in the 'war on terrorism', Attorney General John Ashcroft announced last week that a federal grand jury in Dallas, Texas, returned a 33 count indictment against senior Hamas leader Mousa Abu-Marzook, his wife, his five brothers and the Texas-based computer company, Infocom Corp. The indictment accuses the group of illegal exports to Syria and Libya, money laundering, dealing in the property of a designated terrorist and making false statements, Ashcroft said.

Four of the brothers were arrested in Texas by federal anti- terrorism agents and a fifth brother is already in custody serving a four-year federal prison sentence for making illegal computer shipments to Saudi Arabia. The brothers worked at Infocom, a computer company in Richardson, Texas. One of the brothers taken into custody was Ghassan Elashi, chairman of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, the largest Muslim charity in the US, which was shut down in December 2001 after the Bush administration accused the organisation of being a front for Hamas and seized its assets.

The attorney-general said, if convicted, the defendants could get up to 45 years each in prison and could face up to $7.2 million in fines. Federal arrest warrants have been issued for Mousa Abu- Marzook and his wife Nadia Elashi. Abu-Marzook was deported from the US in 1997 and now lives in Syria.

"Terrorist money-men should know this: We are hunting down the murderers you support, and we will hunt you down," Ashcroft said. "Just as we will prosecute the terrorist who plants a bomb, we will prosecute the terrorist who writes a cheque."

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