Hundreds (perhaps a thousand) Muslims are being held in US jails as a result of new rules that require citizens of certain countries to register with the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Many who have been resident in the US for many years, but whose status was not formalized, were promptly arrested and jailed when they came forward to comply with the new requirement. Most of the detainees are from Southern California — Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego — where there are some 600,000 Iranian expatriates. People from Syria, Sudan, Iraq and Libya are also among the detainees.
The new rules required citizens from these countries whose legal status is not clear, to register with the INS by December 16. Many awaiting issuance of green cards, who had submitted applications already, suddenly found themselves in a legal jam. Overzealous INS officials, far from registering them, simply herded them into prisons after photographing and fingerprinting them. Islamic organizations and secular civil libertarians complained that terrorists were not likely to come forward and hand themselves over to the INS.
The head of the Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) compared the arrests to the internment of Japanese Americans during the second world war. "We are getting a lot of telephone calls from people. We are hearing that people went down wanting to cooperate and then they were detained," said Ramona Ripston, the ACLU’s executive director.
December 16 was the deadline for citizens from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya, but within three days at least a thousand of them were in jail. Some observers expressed concern that, with prisons overflowing in California, many detainees would end up in desert jails in Arizona, and could be there for months before being produced before an immigration judge for a hearing. Given the shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later mentality sweeping the US, such fears are not unfounded.
Since September 2001 more than 1,200 Muslims and people of Arab descent have been rounded up in the US. After months of imprisonment, during which many simply disappeared, unable to contact their relatives or friends, the overwhelming majority were found to be guilty of no more than over-staying their visas, or were in the process of renewing their visas. Not one was convicted by an American court of being involved in any terrorist activity, yet these people spent months in overcrowded jails, where they were abused and humiliated.
The best-known case is that of Nabil al-Marabh, alleged to be an accomplice of one of the hijackers. He had tried to enter the US illegally from Canada in July 2001. He was arrested at the US-Canada border but released on a US$7,500 bond, then managed to get into the US. When US and Canadian authorities named him as being linked to the hijackers, his uncle, Ahmed Shihab, who owned a print shop in Toronto, contacted the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), the intelligence wing of the Canadian police force, and offered to cooperate. Despite this, the RCMP broke down his apartment door, raided his print shop with guns drawn, and arrested his employees in the full glare of television cameras. Shihab and his employees were also accused of being accomplices in terrorist activities.
Marabh was arrested on September 20, 2001. After being held for nearly a year, when he was brought before a judge in Buffalo (New York), the only charge against him was illegal entry into the US; on October 2 he was sentenced to eight months in jail, a time he had already served in detention. This was a far cry from being an accomplice in terrorist acts. His uncle’s business was ruined, and to date no apology has been offered to him.
A spokesman for the RCMP dismissed the demand for an apology, saying that the media, not the agency, was responsible for labelling Marabh and his uncle as terrorists.
An even worse fate has befallen the 625 people held in animal-like cages in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. These people, most of them Afghans, Pakistanis, Arabs or Somalis, were brought in chains from Afghanistan or Pakistan and, in violation of all norms of international law, are held in a diplomatic limbo. It is interesting to note that, although the US insists that these people are guilty, they are not charged with any specific crime, nor have they been brought before a court in the US. Guantanamo Bay is occupied illegally by the US despite protests from Cuba. Thus, while the US does not make any legal claim to the concentration-camp-like prison in Guantanamo Bay, it continues to occupy it militarily. The detainees held there are, therefore, technically not on US soil and do not have to be presented before a US court.
Such despicable behaviour clearly cannot endear the US to people elsewhere. While president Bush may claim that other people hate America because they are jealous of American "freedom and liberties," the fact is that others know all too well the atrocious behaviour of the US. It is not American freedom and liberties they hate, but the brazen hypocrisy and arrogance of US officials that breeds resentment against America.
The detention of people who have lived and worked in America legally for years, then suddenly find themselves without status is a case in point. Many immigration lawyers have confirmed that, in a number of cases, the people who have been arrested had already submitted their applications, which were being processed; so in that sense the INS authorities were not unaware of their presence or whereabouts. Yet such information is dismissed because INS officials would rather lock up innocent people than be accused of releasing a future "terrorist". This has become the latest label with which to condemn anyone whom the US authorities want to detain; the person is arrested, locked up, abused, humiliated and the key simply thrown away. Often legal representation is denied and confessions are extracted by torture.
Although the latest batch of people are from five of 20 named Middle Eastern countries, an equally grim fate awaits citizens of the other 15 countries who may not have had their legal status in the US regularized yet. It is not surprising that many countries have advised their citizens not to travel to the US unless absolutely necessary. In fact, the US has imposed new regulations for people born in the 20 named countries; they will be fingerprinted and photographed before being allowed to enter the US.
A number of Canadian citizens of Pakistani, Iranian and Arab origin have had to endure such humiliation while trying to enter the US. The Canadian government, after making some half-hearted sounds of protest, has now fallen silent about the mistreatment of its citizens. Clearly the US carries a big stick, and the Canadian government is not going to worry about the rights of brown-skinned citizens who should be grateful to be allowed to stay in Canada. Some people are obviously less equal than others, depending on their skin-colour and place of birth.
So much for the rule of law.