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RIGHTS-U.S.: Bush Push for Patriot Act Provokes Unease

Amantha Perera

LOS ANGELES, May 6 2004 (IPS) - Muslim rights groups in the state of California are watching nervously as President George W Bush increasingly talks of renewing the Patriot Act, a mainstay of his "war on terrorism", as he campaigns for the November presidential election.

Soon after the 342-page act became law in October 2001, 45 days after the Sep. 11 terrorist attacks, Muslim groups across the country complained of harassment of their community members as officials began to strictly enforce a "special registration procedure" for immigrants.

For instance, Muhammad Bachir, a U.S. permanent resident for 23 years, was asked to report for registration in February 2002. But when he showed up, Bachir, who is of Palestinian origin, was jailed at the San Pedro federal detention centre in Southern California for failure to appear for a July 2001 interview, although he had informed authorities that he was unable to appear for medical reasons.

When he was finally released in New York 18 months later, in August 2003, Bachir had spent time in 17 detention centres across the country. He was never charged with a crime.

"They were obsessed with me. I was outspoken. I called the media and human rights organisations, accusing the government of (racial) profiling. I went on a hunger strike," California’s Senate Office of Research quotes Bachir in a report on the impact of the Patriot Act on the Muslim community.

Bachir was also privately informed by an immigration officer that authorities were aware of his hospitalisation at the time of the first missed interview.

"The ‘war on terror’ is a war, really, on a community that is being connected to the (9/11) highjackers," Sireen Sawaf, hate crime prevention coordinator of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) in Los Angeles told IPS.

The special registration programme ordered immigrants from various countries to register with authorities. But Muslim community groups say it was specifically aimed at Muslims. "There was a selective enforcement of the law," says Hussan Ayloush executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in southern California.

At first, CAIR encouraged individuals to take part, says Ayloush in an interview, but soon it began to hear of instances of extended detentions.

Of the 25 countries on the final list of countries whose nationals had to register, North Korea was the only non-Muslim state. And, according to Ayloush, as the registration and detentions continued, authorities ignored 300,000 immigration violators previously known to be living in southern California.

According to the Senate Office of Research report, 93,741 Muslim aliens were registered at U.S. ports of entry while 85,519 were registered elsewhere in the country until the programme was scrapped in December 2003 for lack of funds.

The report says deportation procedures were started against 13,799 people, 2,870 were jailed at deportation centres and 143 were charged as criminals. "Numbers who were charged with terrorism, although officials say a few have terrorism connections: 0," it adds.

The report concluded that prior to 9/11, deportation procedures would not have been commenced on many individuals who were facing deportation.

According to the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC) thousands of people registered under the special programme still face possible deportation.

Currently something called the "no-fly list" continues to create problems for Muslims or people with Muslim-sounding names. Individuals have been detained at airports and questioned by customs officers based on the secret list, allegedly created by the FBI, according to MPAC’s Sawaf.

"How they got on (the list) is yet to be answered," she said.

Such treatment has led Muslim community leaders to complain of racial and religious profiling. "Are these measures that will enhance national security? We need answers to these questions," said Sawaf, observing that the Sep. 11 hijackers had entered the United States legally.

Still, the situation has improved since late 2001 says Ayloush, adding that the number of detentions has decreased.

But Bush has been busy campaigning for the Act, parts of which are due to expire in November 2005, to be enhanced.

"I am starting a campaign to make it clear to members of Congress it (the Patriot Act) shouldn’t expire; it shouldn’t expire, for the security of our country, Bush told a crowd in Buffalo, New York last month. "The Patriot Act needs to be renewed and the Patriot Act needs to be enhanced. That’s what we are talking about," he added.

Among the new provisions contemplated are administrative subpoenas that could be issued by law enforcement officials without oversight from courts, the denial of bail in such cases and the wider use of the death penalty.

On Wednesday, Justice Department officials told a Senate committee that a related law that had been strengthened by the Patriot Act should be broadened so that the definition of providing ”material support or resources" to terrorists would include virtually any ”tangible or intangible" money, property or service, except medicine or religious materials.

Groups and individuals seeking to provide lawful support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka and the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey won a favourable ruling against the law in January.

California District Judge Audrey Collins ruled that the ban it placed on giving expert advice or assistance to groups designated as foreign terrorist organisations was impermissibly vague, and declared it unconstitutional.

A case that began last week in Idaho State against Saudi Arabian student Sami Omar al-Hussayen is also seen as a test of the "material support" statute. The son of a former Saudi Arabian minister, al-Hussayen is accused of aiding terrorists by maintaining websites of Muslim groups that promoted jihad (holy war).

Law enforcement officials also employed the Patriot Act to expand the use of covert searches. In its annual report to Congress, the Justice Department said this week it had obtained approval for 1,700 electronic surveillance and physical searches in 2003, an 85 percent hike over 2001.

In yet another legal challenge brought against the Patriot Act, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said last week it was challenging the constitutionality of a provision that allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to demand sensitive customer records from businesses without court oversight.

"The National Security Letter provision allows the FBI to demand the sensitive records of innocent people in complete secrecy, without ever appearing before a federal judge," said Jameel Jaffer ACLU staff attorney. Prior to the Patriot Act, the FBI could only request such information of suspected spies and terrorists.

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