Syed Ali likes to tell the story of taking his family down to Washington to attend President George W. Bush’s inauguration. He had contributed to Bush’s presidential campaign. As a Pakistani immigrant who came to the U.S. more than 20 years ago, Ali is the model immigrant success story, working his way up to being a partner in a Manhattan security firm. A half-million-dollar home in the suburbs, three cars, kids in private schools, trips to France, Sweden, and Great Britain. He also contributed money to Al Gore, but he has a picture of Bush on his computer. He was waiting for his citizenship papers to come through.
But September 11 brought an end to Ali’s dream. He sat in a New York City courtroom listening to himself described as a likely terrorist.
He is one of perhaps 1200 Muslim men who have been held in New Jersey and New York jails, often on the pretext of violating the immigration laws. The FBI, using the INS as a “front,” as one attorney puts it, pulled in every Muslim it thought to be suspicious. A police check of a car parked in front of a fire hydrant led to one arrest. Another detainee had renewed his driver’s license in a Florida motor-vehicle office shortly after one of the September 11 terrorists renewed his license. An executive was pulled over for a traffic violation and suddenly found half a dozen cops all over him, screaming, “Terrorist!”
Since the first roundup last fall, some men have been released, others deported. (Officials at the Pakistani embassy told The Washington Post that some 130 Pakistani men have been deported to that country alone.) More have been arrested. Lawyers familiar with the cases believe there are 300 or so men in custody, but they really don’t know exactly how many. Some without family or close friends have disappeared. Sometimes they turn up through a collect phone call to one of the half-dozen groups—such as the Queens group Help and Hope and the Islamic Circle of North America—trying to help free them.
This week, the Center for Constitutional Rights filing a class action suit against Attorney General John Ashcroft, various senior government officials, and corrections officers who the Center alleges committed abuses against detainees. The plaintiffs, said William Goodman, the group’s legal director, “have identified a policy on the part of the American government to look at Muslim malesand call them terrorists whether they were or not, and in almost every circumstance, they were not.”
Ali’s case grew out of a business dispute, he told the Voice. Ali and his other partners in their security firm squared off in lawsuits and countersuits.
About a month after the World Trade Center attack, Ali was sitting in his Manhattan attorney’s office when the phone rang. It was his wife, Delilah. Two dozen investigators from the New York D.A. were rummaging through the house, taking away the family’s possessions, from notebooks to pictures on the walls to computers. They spotted Bush’s picture on the computer and wanted to know why it was there. They eagerly snatched up Ali’s son’s flight-simulation computer game. Asked why, an investigator muttered something about “bioterrorism.” Alarmed, Ali’s attorney called the office of Robert Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney, which confirmed the search and told him there was an arrest warrant for Ali—he was to surrender at once.
Ali thought everything would turn out OK once he explained it to a judge. He spent the night in a holding cell and the next morning listened in astonishment when the D.A. told a judge, as Ali recalled, that “I was under investigations for terrorist activities. The prosecutor said I had traveled extensively throughout the world and I have links in the Middle East and I have traveled with individuals to Europe, specifically France and Paris, to Sweden, to England.” They claimed to be investigating Ali because of unaccounted-for monies he had obtained through his business that they thought might be connected to terrorism.
“The people I traveled with were my family—my two kids and my wife,” he said. “They said I was at the World Trade Center two weeks prior to the incident. I had taken my wife’s friend with my son and shown them the World Trade Center because they had never been to New York. I was from Pakistan, so I must have something to do with something bad. I could hear the entire courtroom hissing, and hatred was coming out of people.”
Ali was sent to Rikers and put in an area for murderers and other high-profile criminals. “All my assets were frozen,” he said. “Everything taken out of my house—every family picture, every family video. Everything right down to our EZ Pass. Our cars were taken. It was just a nightmare. I was arraigned—I could not make bail of $250,000. We didn’t have any money. We could not use anything we owned.”
Friends of the Ali family backed away from them. “Please don’t call here anymore,” he said one of his best friends told him. The one person who lent them money was their Argentinean housekeeper. “The way they read these accusations against me,” he said, “it sounded like that if I am lucky I would get a life sentence. The worst would be the death penalty.”
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:
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.
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