Feature: Wednesday, May 09, 2002
Cells WIthout Numbers

Prisoners With Arab Names

By Dan Malone

Anwar Al-Mirabi’s captors sometimes greeted him with “Good morning, terrorist.” Shuffled among a half-dozen jails in three states during the last eight months, he was denied a drinking cup, mattress, and toilet paper. The businessman asked for a change of clothes, but didn’t get that either. Nor did he get prompt treatment for a painful, infected mass which swelled to the size of a fist.

Al-Mirabi’s wife said he’s been treated like an animal. More like an axe murderer, his attorney said. The fact is, Al-Mirabi’s been treated like a terrorist.

And that might be OK if he was one. But the 29-year-old Arlington resident hasn’t been charged with terrorism or any other crime. Unless you want to call ignoring an immigration deadline to be with your wife during childbirth a crime.

Al-Mirabi was arrested Sept. 13, two days after the terror attacks on New York and Washington. In the panic that gripped the nation following those tragedies, authorities were tipped to check on the young, well-traveled Saudi businessman with roots in North Texas.

As an Arab and a Muslim with a dark and sometimes unruly beard, Al-Mirabi outwardly fit the coarse stereotype some people have for a terrorist. Further, some details of his life — who he knew, where he traveled — made federal officials suspicious. In reality, though, the attacks on Sept. 11 angered and offended Al-Mirabi.

“He was upset,’’ his wife, Marlene Kanj Al-Mirabi, recalled. “He didn’t think a Muslim would do something like this.’’

By the time the agents appeared at his front door last fall, Al-Mirabi had been traveling between Saudi Arabia and the United States for seven years. He had established an automobile exporting business and was dabbling in several others. He met a recently widowed, American-born Muslim and married her in the summer of 2000. Two weeks before federal agents knocked on their door, the newlywed couple celebrated the birth of their first child, a boy they named Bassam.

“We were at home around 10 in the morning,’’ Marlene Al-Mirabi said in an interview late last year as she cradled Bassam in her arms. “Officers from the INS and FBI, five or six men ... knocked on the door.’’ Al-Mirabi could have demanded the agents obtain a search warrant, but chose not to. “My husband let them in. We cooperated from the beginning. They asked to see our house, which they did. They asked to see our passports.’’

When the agents inspected his immigration papers, they discovered that the humanitarian visa Al-Mirabi had been given when he entered the country had expired a few weeks earlier.

In the world that existed before 9-11, foreigners who overstayed their visas were often considered small fish — rarely worth the attention, much less the time, of five or six agents from several federal law-enforcement agencies. But four hijacked airliners quickly changed the rules, and the agents told Al-Mirabi he would have to come with them.

Marlene Al-Mirabi said she was left believing they might keep her husband for “maybe two or three hours, and he would get out on bond because he’s married to an American. Usually in these cases, you get out on bond.’’

Hours stretched to days, days to weeks and weeks to months. His detention became a family nightmare.

“Marlene has stayed with people who thought they were putting her up for a few days, which turn into months,’’ said his attorney, Gerhard Kleinschmidt. “She never knew one day to the next where she was going to stay, how long it would be. Her children are in limbo.

“Once they had him locked up, they didn’t give a damn about him, his problems, or his family.’’

Federal officials in Chicago, interested in Al-Mirabi’s associations and travel, named him a material witness for a grand jury terror probe. U.S. marshals took him into custody and moved him to Illinois. Although he testified before the grand jury there three times, cooperated fully, and was told he will not be charged with any crime, Al-Mirabi still hasn’t been released.

In what may be a glimmer of hope for others in similar situations, a federal judge last week ruled that it is illegal to “imprison an innocent person in order to guarantee that he will testify before a grand jury.”

But that ruling had no bearing on Al-Mirabi’s case. No longer a material witness, he was returned to the custody of the immigration officials, who are trying to deport him, perhaps as early as Thursday.

Unfortunately, Al-Mirabi’s story is not an aberration.

“We’ve seen a lot of this sort of behavior from both the INS and the FBI, and in my opinion it’s both illegal and morally reprehensible,” said Marc Van Der Hout, a San Francisco attorney who serves on the boards of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the National Immigration Project of the America Lawyers Guild.

“If you’re a white man and you come from Great Britain or Canada and you come in contact with the INS and you’ve overstayed your visa, either you’re not detained or post a low bail. If you’re an Arab male from any of the Arab countries, particularly if you’re Muslim, you’re detained, perhaps put in solitary ... for weeks if not months on end while the FBI and the INS do an investigation without any reasons whatsoever other than profiling to see if you’re involved in terrorist activities.

“It’s outrageous,” he said. “If we’re going to tolerate that, we’ve really become a police state.”

In the weeks and months that followed 9-11, U.S. officials enforced a zero-tolerance policy for foreigners who violated even the most minor rules. In North Texas and across the U.S., federal agents fanned out to businesses owned and operated by Arabs, reviewed the travel papers of their employees, checked for minor probation violations, and made arrests whenever they could.

Nationally, the number of persons “detained’’ swelled to some 1,200. In North Texas, federal officials used the Denton County jail as a central repository for people picked up for immigration violations. Last fall, records showed that more than 70 foreigners arrested since Sept. 11 were on “INS holds’’ in the Denton facility.

How many are still being detained and how many of those have any connection to the events of Sept. 11 is unclear. The government has publicly announced a few high-profile prosecutions — Zacarias Moussaoui, the Frenchman suspected of being the 20th hijacker — is perhaps the most prominent. But the circumstances surrounding the overwhelming majority of those still being detained — a group believed to number around 300 — are swathed in secrecy.

Much of Al-Mirabi’s case, too, remains a secret. Officials most familiar with the details of it refuse to talk. All but a few pages of his court records are sealed. Repeated attempts to interview him during the last several months — by telephone or in person — failed, as he was moved jail to jail, state to state, a human checker on a board. What has been learned about his detention shines a rare beam of light on how the government is handling the cases of some of the people swept up in the Sept. 11 aftermath.

People who know Al-Mirabi describe him as soft-spoken, mild-mannered and devout. At the time of his arrest, he was 5-foot-4 and weighed 150 pounds. A mug shot taken the day he was booked into jail shows him with closely cropped dark hair and a neatly trimmed moustache — a stark contrast to the massive, unkempt mane flowing from his jaw. His beard might appear menacing to a Western eye, but his wife said it masks a softhearted teddy bear who faints at the sight of blood.

He was born Feb. 1, 1973, into an affluent Saudi family of 12 children. When he turned 16, his father sent him to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet Union — an effort strongly supported by the United States. According to his attorney, the would-be warrior wasn’t sufficiently fit to make much of a mujahedin. He wound up spending his six months in Afghanistan as a cook.

The man who the U.S. identified as the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, fellow Saudi Osama bin Ladin, may well have been in Afghanistan during the same period. Marlene Al-Mirabi said her husband told her he never met bin Laden and didn’t like what little he knew of him.

In the mid-1990s, Al-Mirabi came to the U.S. for the first time. He eventually settled in Arlington. Attending mosque in Arlington, he met two men who would later play an indirect role in his troubles — Khader Hasan Ibrahim and Wadih el Hage. Ibrahim owned a tire store in East Fort Worth where el Hage worked as general manager in the late 1990s. El Hage, now 41, was sentenced to life in prison in 2001 for perjury and conspiracy convictions tied to two 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa that killed 244 persons. In Africa, el Hage worked as a personal secretary to bin Laden. El Hage has maintained that his work for bin Laden was strictly on legitimate business despite evidence showing the work of bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization flowed through and around him.

Ibrahim, an Arlington businessman, was accused in 2000 of harboring illegal aliens — his Jordanian brother and his brother’s wife. That charge was subsequently dismissed after the U.S. attorney’s office learned that the INS was considering granting the couple asylum. Ibrahim, the government concluded, “had arguable humanitarian reasons for assisting” the couple. (One of Ibrahim’s attorneys was Lynne Stewart. Stewart herself was indicted last month by a federal grand jury in New York on charges of passing information from another client, Omar Abdel Rahman, a convicted terrorist. Rahman, the so-called “blind sheik,’’ is serving a life sentence for conspiring to blow up the United Nations building and other New York-area landmarks in 1993.)

When Al-Mirabi met Marlene Kanj, she had been recently widowed. Her husband, Bassam Kanj, who had lived in Boston for more than a decade and worked as a taxi driver there, was killed in Lebanon in the late 1990s. Various press accounts identify Bassam Kanj as a bin Laden associate who was killed in a ruinous anti-government insurrection that resulted in some 20 deaths, including his own.

Marlene Al-Mirabi has been given conflicting accounts of what happened to Bassam Kanj, Kleinschmidt said. One version had him dying when a water tower collapsed and fell on him. But a photograph also showed him with a gunshot wound to the head.

“I don’t know exactly what happened to him,’’ Marlene Al-Mirabi said. “I don’t know if anyone knows ...” However he died, she was left to raise their five children alone. She met Al-Mirabi in the United States shortly after Kanj’s death. They married, set up housekeeping in Arlington, and soon were expecting their first child.

“He said he wanted to be with me because of the kids,’’ she said. “In our religion, if you take care of orphans, it’s an honor.’’

Al-Mirabi last entered the United States in July 2001, with a tourist and business visa that immigration officials revoked because they said he was planning to live permanently in the United States. When he pleaded with them to let him stay until his wife — who was by then late into her pregnancy — gave birth, they granted him a one-month extension on a humanitarian visa good until Aug. 16.

Baby Bassam didn’t cooperate, however. By the Aug. 16 deadline, Marlene Al-Mirabi was having problems with her physician and made arrangements for a friend in Boston, a midwife, to deliver her baby. In late August, the Al-Mirabis and their five kids piled into the family car and began the 1,500-mile trip from Arlington through New York to Boston. Bassam was born two weeks late on Aug. 29. Mother and child returned to Texas by plane several days later, while Al-Mirabi and his stepchildren returned by car — through New York again.

Whether the person who told authorities to check out Al-Mirabi was aware of these connections or coincidences is not known. But after his arrest on Sept. 13, Kleinschmidt said, Al-Mirabi was interrogated for more than 12 hours by at least seven different agents.

The facts investigators pieced together painted an alarming picture. A well-traveled Saudi Arabian Muslim exporter with immigration problems and a cliché beard (Al-Mirabi) ... was acquainted with a convicted terrorist (el-Hage) ... and married to the widow of a putative bin Laden associate (Kanj) ... and had traveled to Boston (where two of the four hijacked airlines departed) ... and then twice passed by the scene of the most deadly act of terrorism (New York) shortly before Sept. 11.

Despite initial assurances, it quickly became clear that Al-Mirabi, ensconced in the Denton County jail, was going nowhere anytime soon. Records show he was booked into the Denton County jail one day after agents first appeared on his doorstep — at 1:35 p.m. on Sept. 14. But after their marathon interrogation, investigators were content to leave him in Denton while they checked on his story. Eventually, U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald in Chicago became interested in Al-Mirabi’s case. Fitzgerald is one of the nation’s most knowledgeable terrorism prosecutors, having tried el Hage and others convicted in the embassy bombings, the first World Trade Center bombing, and other terrorism plots.

Al-Mirabi was removed from the Denton County jail on Nov. 13 for a hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeff Kaplan in Dallas. Except for 12 pages, records on that hearing have been sealed. The little that remains public shows that Al-Mirabi was then wanted as a material witness by federal officials in Chicago.

Kleinschmidt persuaded the judge to set conditions for Al-Mirabi’s release and let him travel to Illinois as a free man if he could persuade the INS to give up its hold on him for overstaying his visa. Immigration officials, however, had no intention of letting Al-Mirabi go. “Too bad,” Kleinschmidt said he was told by an INS attorney. “He’s going to sit in jail ’cause it’s up to me, and I say he sits in jail.” The following day, an immigration judge in a separate proceeding ordered Al-Mirabi deported.

Anne Estrada, the INS district director in Dallas, said discretion played no role in the agency’s decision to detain Al-Mirabi. The humanitarian visa under which Al-Mirabi was admitted didn’t permit him to be released on bond. Al-Mirabi was transferred to federal prisons in Seagoville and El Reno, Okla., and then to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago.

Two months later, he was finally called before the grand jury. The questions he was asked and the answers he gave are not publicly known, but it is likely that prosecutors in Illinois covered the same ground federal agents had in Texas.

“I can see how they thought the coincidences in Anwar’s situation made them want to talk to him,’’ Kleinschmidt said. “He knew Wadih el Hage. He had married a woman who was married to Bassam Kanj. He was traveling in New York within a few days of 9-11. He knew Khader Ibrahim ... who was the employer of Wadih el Hage.”

Bruce Anton, a Dallas attorney who handled Al-Mirabi’s case when he was being questioned by federal agents in Texas, said that at one point his client was also suspected of being involved in the export of flight simulators — another red flag. During a break in questioning, Anton said he asked investigators how they thought the session was going. “They said, ‘We think he’s holding back. We’ve got him in the export of flight simulators out of Tyler, Texas.’ ”

The “flight simulators,” however, turned out to be a video game. Al-Mirabi told Anton that he had “gone to an American bar and saw these flight games and thought they would be a big hit back in his homeland. He always insisted it was a video game.” The agents never divulged what they based their suspicions on.

Al-Mirabi gave Kleinschmidt a similar explanation: He saw the game and contacted the manufacturer, but nothing came of it. “He wrote them,” Kleinschmidt said. “They already had a distributor in Saudi Arabia.”

Al-Mirabi testified three times before the grand jury — the last three Thursdays in January, according to his attorney’s records. In March, the government flew his wife to Chicago, and she and Kleinschmidt met with prosecutors and answered more questions. Finally, Fitzgerald’s office informed Kleinschmidt that “they were finished, there would be no charge, and that he would be going back to Saudi Arabia.”

Al-Mirabi was taken from the Chicago facility to the Tri-County Jail in Ullin, Ill., where, at least until recently, he was awaiting deportation. The jail’s administrator did not return a reporter’s telephone call.

But a jail supervisor made it clear that Al-Mirabi’s whereabouts — like much of the case against him — isn’t the public’s business. “I for sure can’t give out that information,’’ the jailer said. “Especially to newspapers.’’

Being an Arab in an American jail in the weeks and months following Sept. 11 was scary — and Al-Mirabi was repeatedly taunted and abused, his wife and Kleinschmidt said. Though charged with no criminal offense (immigration violations are handled outside the criminal system), he nonetheless was often held in solitary confinement in rooms where lights shone 24 hours a day. Outside his cell, he moved with shackles and handcuffs. For a month, he was limited to a single phone call to his family. He wasn’t permitted to visit with other prisoners. He was refused a change of clothing. An infected hemorrhoid was neglected and swelled to painful proportions.

At one facility, Kleinschmidt said, “They wouldn’t let him have a drinking cup. They wouldn’t let him have toilet paper. They wouldn’t give him a mattress.” When guards weren’t calling him “terrorist” to his face they were trying to get a statement from him.

“You can imagine the bubbas deciding this is one of the terrorists,” the attorney said. “I guess they thought they were going to be heroes.”

Al-Mirabi’s frequent transfers and the official reluctance to discuss his case made it difficult to identify facilities where such events may have happened. INS officials in Texas referred questions about his treatment to the Denton County jail, where he was detained. Kevin Patton, spokesman for Sheriff Weldon Lucas, who runs the jail, disputed Al-Mirabi’s claim of abuse and remembers him as a “whiner and complainer.”

“I’ve checked with jail personnel. Mr. Al-Mirabi never filed a grievance or complaint. There is no record ... of him reporting such treatment.’’

What else the government might know about Al-Mirabi is anyone’s guess. One Justice Department official assigned to answer questions from the media said flatly that the department “is not providing any information about detainees who may be in custody due to recent terrorist events.’’

Al-Mirabi’s case surfaced publicly only through the work of a group of graduate students at the University of North Texas who had been assigned to sift through hundreds of arrest records on the Denton County jail’s web site.

If the Justice Department has its way in the future, such expeditions may no longer be possible. The agency announced last month new rules blocking state and local officials from disclosing any information about foreigners being held in their facilities for the federal government.

“Information regarding certain federal detainees is extremely sensitive,” the INS said in a news release announcing the new rule last month. “The rule clarifies that officials at non-federal detention facilities will not release information relating to detainees, reserving the decision for release of such information to the INS.”

As Al-Mirabi languished last week in an Illinois jail, a federal judge in New York issued a rebuke to prosecutors using the material-witness laws to detain grand jury witnesses.

A week after Al-Mirabi’s arrest, a team of agents based in San Diego was following up on a lead out of Washington. One of the hijackers, Nawaf Al-Hazmi, had abandoned his car at Washington’s Dulles International Airport before boarding one of the American Airlines jetliners that crashed into the Pentagon. Searching the car, they found a scrap of paper inside on which someone had written “Osama 589-5316.” That number was traced to a telephone at a residence that had once briefly been used by a man named Osama Awadallah.

When investigators interviewed Awadallah, he acknowledged knowing two of the hijackers, but could recall only one of their names — Al- Hazmi’s. The second man he described matched the description of hijacker Khalid al-Mihdar, but Awadallah told agents he knew no one by that name.

Awadallah was arrested as a material witness. When the government found a notebook in which Awadallah had written al-Mihdar’s name, he was indicted for perjury. He spent 83 days in jail before being released on bond.

The conditions in which Awadallah were held closely match those of which Al-Mirabi complained. Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of New York said Awadallah was “treated as a high-security inmate, detained in various prisons across the country ... kept in solitary confinement and shackled and strip-searched. ... He was unable to have family visits or use the telephone. ...” The government, the judge ruled last week, had misused the material-witness law to detain Awadallah and threw out the case against him.

“Imprisoning a material witness for a grand jury investigation raises a serious constitutional question under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits ‘unreasonable ... seizures,’ ” she wrote. “Since 1789, no Congress has granted the government the authority to imprison an innocent person in order to guarantee that he will testify for a grand jury conducting a criminal investigation. A proper respect for the laws that Congress does enact — as well as the inalienable right of liberty — prohibits this court from rewriting the law, no matter how exigent the circumstances.”

Citing the case of an Egyptian who was arrested after Sept. 11, the judge also said that using the material-witness statute to detain grand jury witnesses “had led to serious abuses.” The Egyptian, Abdallah Higazy, was arrested on a material-witness warrant on Dec. 17 after attempting to retrieve some possessions he lad left at a hotel near Ground Zero after the New York attacks.

FBI agents accused him of leaving a ground-to-air radio, which they theorized might have been used in the hijacking, at the hotel. Higazy repeatedly denied this. But during an interrogation in which he said he almost fainted, Higazy said he became confused and may have given agents reason to think the radio was his. The agents viewed his statement as a confession and charged him with lying. Higazy spent 31 days in jail, most of it in solitary confinement, before another guest at the hotel stepped forward and claimed the radio.

Awadallah and Higazy, both of whom had actually been charged with a criminal offense, spent a total of 114 days behind bars. Al-Mirabi, who stands accused only of overstaying his visa, has been detained more than twice as long as either — and has virtually no chance of resuming his life in Arlington.

While Kleinschmidt said he understands why the government was interested in questioning Al-Mirabi, the government’s treatment sends a frightening, self-defeating signal to others who might want to cooperate.

“He cooperated fully from the first interview, despite his wife saying he should not talk to them without an attorney. He believed he would be released. If word gets out to these other(s) ... that all the time they are cooperating they’re going to be locked up in maximum-security cells and treated as if they are axe murderers, how is that going to encourage anyone to cooperate?

“From his initial cooperation, the questioning ceased after two or three days. Then we have months and months where nobody bothers to see him, but he is locked in solitary confinement. He is sick and has a hard time getting decent treatment. He’s constantly transferred. And then, when the grand jury finishes with their investigation ... then they again ignore him.’’

The Saudi government has offered to pay the costs for Al-Mirabi and his family to come home. The offer has been refused. Federal officials insist on deporting Al-Mirabi at taxpayer expense and under terms that Kleinschmidt said will prohibit him from trying to re-enter the country for 10 years. He expects immigration officials to remove Al-Mirabi as early as Thursday.

In the end, the government’s eight-month-long investigation of Al-Mirabi yielded nothing more damning that what agents learned when they knocked on his door Sept 13.: A father had overstayed his visa a few weeks to be with his wife and newborn son.

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