Victims of the Dragnet

After 9-11, Official Terror Kicks In

After 105 days, the judge lost patience and demanded to see some sign from the FBI—an agent or letter or something—that it wanted to hold Ali. He set a deadline for the government to put up or shut up. It came and went. Nothing from the FBI. Eventually, a New York County grand jury indicted Ali on charges of second-degree grand larceny and making false statements to a public authority in connection with his business dealings. There was no mention of terrorism. Ali pleaded not guilty; the case is pending. A judge freed him on $50,000 bond.

What happened to Ali was not just another mistake of an overburdened judicial system. It was part of a deliberate government scheme to carry out a dragnet by avoiding usual judicial procedures. A few other examples of how the dragnet works:

  • Qaiser Rafiq, a Pakistani and former Wall Street computer specialist, left his sister's Connecticut home about 10:30 a.m. on October 17, he said in a letter from jail to his family. He was abruptly stopped and surrounded by cop cars. Demanding to know if he had a bomb in his car and warning that they'd shoot him if he blinked, the cops asked, "Where are your terrorist friends?" He replied, "I don't know any terrorists." He said the cops told him, "Shut up, shut up. All you Muslims are terrorists."
    Let my people go: Immigrants and other protesters rally against the INS in Manhattan in February.
    photo: Jennifer S. Altman
    Let my people go: Immigrants and other protesters rally against the INS in Manhattan in February.

    At a Hartford police station, Rafiq was interrogated by FBI and state cops. "They asked me," he recalled in the letter, "what was I doing on September 11, what I have been doing since September 11, what do I think about September 11. How long have I been living in this country, what I have been doing, my legal status, if I know any of the known terrorists. Did I ever send money to any terrorist network. I told them I am a highly educated computer professional who came to this country more than 13 years ago, I have a legal status in the country, I left my last Wall Street job due to a difference in opinion and arguments with the CEO. I was at my friend's house in Queens on September 11. I don't know any of the known terrorists. I never sent money to any terrorist network. I consider the September 11 attack as a horrible act of terrorism."

    Rafiq is now in prison, where, according to a relative, his jailers sat by while other inmates beat him. He's awaiting trial on a charge of larceny—due, he said, to a statement he made five years ago in a business dispute. Bail is set at $1 million.

  • Pakistani immigrant Mohammad Akoram had just left his Brighton Beach retail goods store with an acquaintance last November 11 when a carful of FBI and INS agents drove up and arrested his friend. As Akoram started to walk away, the cops put cuffs on him too, because—as his son recalled in an interview with the Voice—they said he might know something. Not to worry, the FBI agent told the family, he'll be back in a few days. The few days turned into five months. Prison red tape kept the family from visiting Akoram. The last time Akoram's children saw him was at the airport a week ago, just before he was put on a plane back to Pakistan.

    Now Akoram's son and wife are selling their house and their business to go back to Pakistan. "We don't want to, but we have no choice," the son said. "Our father is there, and we want to be with him." He added, "We were just a regular happy family living in America, and now everything has changed so fast."

    Attorneys said that many detainees are originally held on minor immigration charges, but that FBI agents can keep holding them by signing an affidavit designating them as "material witnesses." Detainees' hearings are often conducted in sealed courtrooms, with no friends or family allowed to watch. Records of the proceedings are often sealed.

    In other cases, attorneys said, detainees get FBI "clearance," but the INS steps in and deports them. Some prisoners fight deportation at immigration hearings; others waive their rights and meekly accept deportation. But if the FBI has a change of mind, a detainee may, instead of being deported, be further imprisoned as a material witness.

    Civil liberties attorneys are trying to stop the dragnet. In Detroit a judge recently ruled that the government can't hold immigration hearings in secret. Judge Nancy G. Edmunds found that "the subtext is all about the government's right to suspend certain personal liberties in the pursuit of national security." The government is appealing Edmunds's decision.

    Additional reporting: Gabrielle Jackson, Meritxell Mir, and Michael Ridley

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