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Silencing dissent: the cases of three Palestinian activists targeted by FBI probes show how government agencies may use immigration and counterterrorism measures to crack down on political activity. (Enemies of the State).

At 5:45 a.m. on April 26, 2002, two New York police detectives and a federal agent pounded on the door of Bernard McFall's apartment in the Lefrak City housing development in Queens.

McFall stumbled out of bed and made his way to the door. His two houseguests, father and son Farouk and Tarek Abdel-Muhti, had already risen from sleeping bags on the living room floor.

"We're here for Farouk," said a man on the other side of the door. The elder Abdel-Muhri, a Palestinian in his 50s, immediately called his lawyer, Gilma Camargo.

"Ask them if they have a warrant, Camargo instructed him.

"We don't need a fucking warrant!" McFall and Tarek Abdel-Muhti remembered the detective shouting. "You've got explosives and weapons in there."

For the next 30 minutes, McFall and his guests refused to open the door. The police threatened to storm the apartment with a SWAT team, according to the three roommates. Finally, McFall opened the door and two detectives and a plainclothes federal agent entered. One of the detectives immediately walked over to the telephone in the kitchen and cut the line to Camargo.

The federal agent handcuffed Farouk and announced: "You're under arrest for a 1995 deportation order." Tarek, a U.S. citizen, was not arrested.

Now in his tenth month of detention, Abdel-Muhti sits in Pennsylvania's York County Prison under 23-hour lockdown. Although Abdel-Muhti may not be completely blameless, he is one of several Palestinian activists across the country who have found themselves in immigrant detention after protesting Israel's military operations in the West Bank and Gaza.

The climate of fear following September 11 and the sweeping national security enhancements of the USA Patriot Act increased the vulnerability of immigrant activists pleading the Palestinian cause in the United States. These developments also coincided with the escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and with George W Bush's markedly bellicose foreign policy.

Civil liberties observers say the federal government has been quietly waging a campaign of surveillance and deportation against Palestinian activists since at least the mid-1980s. "I've been involved in politically motivated immigration cases for the past 20 years," said David Cole, a defense attorney and professor at Georgetown University Law Center. "The vast majority of them have been Palestinian activists. There's a history of the FBI paying more attention to Palestinians, and using the INS to deport them when there's no evidence of criminal wrongdoing."

The Patriot Act has made Palestinian activists more vulnerable to arrest in two important ways: by re-defining a "terrorist organization" as any group with two or more people who have used or threatened to use violence to achieve a political goal, and by giving the attorney general the right to order the detention of any immigrant associated with one of these groups.

The detention of Palestinian activists is part of a gradual encroachment on the space of dissent, says Rania Masri, codirector of the Southern Peace Research and Education Center in Durham, North Carolina. "I think Ashcroft and company would like to silence everybody eventually," she said. "We're already seeing citizens of Palestinian heritage held under secret evidence on suspicion of terrorism." Masri says the detention campaign has also intimidated Arab and Muslim dissent against the war in Iraq: "It's making them extremely hesitant to speak up. I've seen fear in people who are perfectly legal."

Deporting Dissidents

Farouk Abdel-Muhti was born in the waning years of the British Mandate of Palestine in the 1940s. Abdel-Muhti says he and his family fled their home after the Six Day War, in which Israel routed its Arab adversaries and seized the West Bank from Jordan. In Jordan, the family joined the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Since at least the late 1970s, Abdel-Muhti has lived in the U.S.

Abdel-Muhti candidly supports the Palestinian struggle, and in particular the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an armed faction commonly referred to as the DFLP that has carried out attacks against Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

"We want an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, with the right of the Palestinian refugees to return, he said. His support for a two-state solution that would allow an independent Palestine to co-exist alongside Israel puts him in the mainstream of Palestinian opinion.

In 1995, an INS judge issued a deportation order against Abdel-Muhti for an expired visa. He was held for 13 months at the INS processing center in lower Manhattan before being released on bail. His case languished in INS bureaucracy for the next six years. The INS has declined to offer any evidence of terrorist activity, calling it an investigative matter." The agency has declared its intentions of deporting him to the West Bank.

"Any suggestion that he has been detained for reasons other than his outstanding deportation order is wrong," said Kerry Gill, public affairs officer for INS Newark District.

But in papers filed in the federal courts, the U.S. Attorney's Office alleges that AbdelMuhti has an extensive criminal history dating back to 1964, with charges ranging from assaulting a police officer and beating and raping his former wife to selling rugs without a license. The documents say he has used 10 different aliases and has vacillated between claiming Honduras and the West Bank as bithplaces to frustrate attempts to deport him.

A Younger Generation

Palestinian activists Ahmed Bensouda and Amer Jubran also spent several weeks each in INS detention in the months following AbdelMuhti's arrest. They belong to a younger generation of Palestinian American activists who reject the two-state solution in favor of the idea of binationality, under which Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza would be merged into one secular state where Jews and Palestinians would have equal rights under the law.

A soft-spoken, articulate man of 24 with shoulder-length dreadlocks, Ahmed Bensouda came to the United States in 1998 to study political science at the University of Illinois. Bensouda was born in the United Arab Emirates to Moroccan parents. His family belonged to the country's vast number of immigrant guest workers, who make up 80 percent of the population as non-citizens. Molded by the experience of statelessness, he identified instinctively with the Palestinians who came to work in the UAE. By the time he left for the United States, Bensouda's commitment to the Palestinian cause was already well formed.

Amer Jubran, a 33-year-old administrative assistant at Cambridge College in Massachusetts, came to Boston from Jordan in 1987. His studies at Northeastern University coincided with the first Palestinian intifada. There, he became active in the international General Union of Palestinian Students, a group monitored extensively by the FBI throughout the 1980s.

A year after the new intifada ignited in September 2000, Jubran helped organize Boston ANSWER, part of the national antiwar coalition that has championed the Palestinian cause. Jubran's arrest by the INS followed several months of energetic political demonstrations in the Boston area.

"Alien Undesirables"and the LA 8

The government's crackdown on Palestinian activism predates Bensouda and Jubran's arrival in the United States, according to David Cole. As early as the mid-1980s, the U.S. Justice Department initiated a policy to respond to Palestinian militancy in the United States. In 1986, the INS initiated deportation proceedings against seven Palestinians and one Kenyan in Los Angeles suspected of "support for terrorism," who became known as the "LA 8."

Despite its vigorous efforts, the FBI was unable to put together a criminal case against the LA 8. Reports documenting the agency's extensive surveillance campaign came to light as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee. Thirteen years later, the Supreme Court took up the LA 8 case and ruled that "aliens" are not protected against deportations stemming from their political expression.

In their book Terrorism and the Constitution, Cole and co-author James X. Dempsey write that, as the LA 8 case began its journey through the courts, Reagan's Justice Department discussed formalizing the practice of using the INS to deport immigrant activists who could not be sufficiently discouraged by criminal prosecution. During the same period, the Justice Department reviewed a contingency plan to build a detention camp in a remote area of Louisiana to hold "alien undesirables" prior to deporting them. The Alien Border Control Committee, a secret intraagency task force, began to develop plans for the "expulsion from the United States of alien activists who are not in conformity with their immigration status."

Same Rules of Engagement?

One of the provisions of Clinton's 1996 law, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, criminalizing support of a terrorist group's legal activities, would have profound consequences for activists like Abdel-Muhti.

During the last months of Clinton's second term, Palestinian frustration over the expansion of the settlements and declining standards of living gave rise to popular unrest. Civil uprisings and stone throwing by Palestinian youth quickly escalated into a shooting war.

Amer Jubran was spurred to action by the resumption of insurrection in the occupied territories. In June 2001, he organized a protest during the Israeli Independence celebration where he was living in Brookline, Massachusetts.

The confrontation never degenerated into violence, according to Brookline Police Chief Daniel O'Leary, but Jubran was nevertheless arrested by police and charged with assault. Written reports provided by the Brookline Police Department contain transcripts of a radio call made from police headquarters that day instructing, "Clear the action ... from a demonstration taking place there. Group disturbing. Arrest Amer Jubran."

"I have no illusions about how brutal the U.S. government is outside, but I thought that different rules of engagement take place inside here," Jubran said. "Instead, it seems that oppression follows anywhere we go. He cites taped-up mail, clicking on his phone, and plainclothes officers videotaping rallies as evidence of official surveillance of his group.

In New York, Farouk Abdel-Muhti spent much of 2001 building support for the Palestinian cause and campaigning to stop garment sweatshops from shutting down union organizing. In October, he and his son, Tarek, moved into Bernard McFall's apartment in Lefrak City. During those months, he exchanged several calls with the president of the DFLP in Damascus.

Until he was arrested, Abdel-Muhti was responsible for New York distribution of the Democratic Front's weekly newspaper, Al Houriyah (Freedom). McFall says that he and Abdel-Muhti raised money to send to the occupied territories. Such activities could now be subject to prosecution under the new Patriot Act.

Cole and Dempsey argue that U.S. counter-terrorism legislation ignores the complex overlaps between armed activity and political advocacy. "Movements and groups that can be labeled terrorist are often engaged in both legal and illegal activities," they write. "The IRA has Sinn Fein, a legal arm engaged in legitimate political activity. The African National Congress engaged in both violent 'terrorist' acts and non-violent anti-apartheid activity"

Yet it was not the Patriot Act that ended Abdel-Muhri's work on behalf of the Democratic Front, but a January 2002 directive from the Justice Department called the "Absconder Apprehension Initiative." The initiative directed agents to arrest immigrants who had ignored deportation orders, with priority given to some 6,000 from the Middle East and Pakistan.

In the month before his arrest, Abdel-Muhri volunteered at New York's Pacifica radio station WBAI FM, arranging interviews with Palestinians in the occupied territories. During that month, the Israeli military carried out a campaign of mass detentions in the territories, holding over 1,000 Palestinian men in a week and etching ID numbers in ink on some detainees' arms.

After the Israeli military's April 2002 massacre in Jenin, Amer Jubran organized a delegation to a D.C. demonstration against the war on terrorism." With crowds estimated at 100,000, it was the largest show of support for the Palestinian cause in U.S. history.

Chilling Effect

After Farouk Abdel-Muhti's April 26 arrest, agents took him to INS headquarters, where two FBI agents interrogated him. Questioned about whether he had ties to Al Qaeda, Hamas, or the Holy Land Foundation, Abdel-Muhti responded, "I am not involved in terrorism."

The agents asked him to provide the names of individuals who made financial contributions to Palestinians in the occupied territories. Abdel-Muhti refused to answer.

From this point on, the story Abdel-Muhti tells is confined to the secrecy and official silence of the INS interrogation room at 26 Federal Plaza. One of the FBI agents, he alleges, threatened to hand him over to the Israeli intelligence service, Mossad, if he did not cooperate. Another slapped him in the face, knocking him to the floor. Then the FBI agents left the room, and three INS agents came in and beat him for 15 minutes. Two of them "hit me in the belly," while another "put his foot into my neck," he said.

Later, the agents took him into another room, where Camargo was waiting to speak with him. "She tried to give me something to eat, but I was so hurt I could not ear," said Abdel-Mubti.

The FBI did not respond to inquiries about the incident, while a spokesman for the New York office of Homeland Security said he was "unable to confirm the allegations" of INS mistreatment.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, the INS persuaded Ahmed Bensouda to submit to an interview. The incident did not discourage him from making plans to visit the West Bank and Gaza, as a solidarity activist. But the day he applied for his visa, he was arrested.

Secrecy surrounded Bensouda's first hearing a week into his detention. Judge James Fujimoto cleared the press and public from the courtroom before the hearing began and subsequently granted the prosecutor a continuance to gather evidence on grounds that Bensouda might be a "national security threat."

The judge agreed to allow an open hearing the next time, and Bensouda's supporters packed the courtroom. His lawyer argued that he was not a flight risk, and the judge surprised them by releasing Bensouda on bond.

In November 2002, Amer Jubran was also arrested, only two days after organizing another demonstration for Palestinian rights in Boston. A legal resident, he now faces the prospect of deportation to Jordan.

The arrest came on November 4 at Jubran's home in Cumberland, Rhode Island, when a task force of INS and FBI agents arrived in the morning without a warrant.

Jubran spent the next 17 days under 22-hour lockdown at the Adult Correctional Institute in Cranston, Rhode Island, under conditions he described as "humiliating to any decent human." He said he daydreamed of escape and even contemplated suicide.

Today, he and Ahmed Bensouda are still in limbo. Bensouda's and Jubran's hearings have been delayed until later this year.

In January, Abdel-Muhti launched a hunger strike with five other detainees at Passaic County Jail, demanding that he be released immediately and his fellow detainees be transferred to another facility where they could receive contact visits from their families.

The INS agreed to the latter demand, but denied Abdel-Muhti's release. On February 19, nine days before the Bush administration dissolved the INS and reorganized the immigration agency under the new Homeland Security Department, Abdel-Muhti was transferred to York County Prison in southeastern Pennsylvania. His new home is nearly 200 miles away from his support base in New York and New Jersey.

The detentions and deportations have taken their roll on the movement by forcing activists to shift their energy away from organizing to free their comrades from jail. Some activists, such as Bernard McFall, say the detentions have had a chilling effect on their activism, discouraging them from protesting in front of the Israeli consulate. Others, like Lauren Ray at the University of Illinois in Urbana, say that because of Bensouda's arrest, she and other Palestinian rights activists are much more wary of divulging their personal information.

At York County Prison, Abdel-Muhti says he is kept in isolation over 23 hours out of the day, with only 45 minutes to bathe and make telephone calls. He adds that he is handcuffed, shackled, and chained at the waist, which has rubbed his wrists and ankles raw. "I am very disappointed because the INS destroys my rights," he said. "But I am strong like a human being should be, and try to put my dignity over everything."

Looking back on his ordeal, Jubran says, "Maybe I have misinterpreted the First Amendment that allowed me to express my opinion. If I did, then I am sorry for that; I don't want to be above the law or do illegal things by speaking out."

Jordan Green is a graduate student at Columbia School of Journalism.
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Author:Green, Jordan
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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