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Deportees face wrenching losses

By Wayne Washington, Globe Staff, 9/7/2002

ALBANY, N.Y. - While Ali Yaghi was in a jail cell, unable to tell day from night for months, his youngest sons believed their father was in Virginia, working. Now they think he is visiting their grandmother in Jordan.

An older brother who is 9 knows their father has been deported to Jordan and fears he may not ever be allowed to return to the United States. The Yaghis may never be together again as a family in this country.

One of the hundreds of Muslim men from the Middle East or South Asia who have been detained or deported during the investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks, Yaghi now spends his life going to a mosque five times a day in Amman, Jordan's capital. He has no job, though in the United States he was a small businessman. He is a local curiosity in Jordan, his homeland. Friends, neighbors, even relatives, approach him with trepidation. It is possible, they believe, that the Jordanian government, at the behest of the Americans, is keeping tabs on the man once believed to have some information about one of the terrorist hijackers.

Yaghi wonders about being watched, too. He misses his wife and children and does not know when he will see them again. His wife, Shokriea, is half a world away in Albany, clinging to hope that her husband will be allowed to return to the country he called home for nearly two decades.

His return would rectify an awful wrong, she says, and keep her from making a difficult and painful choice: Stay in the United States and raise the three boys here, where they were born and where their prospects are bright? Or reunite the family in Amman, a place alien to the Yaghi children?

In November, Justice Department officials said that at least 1,200 people had been held in federal, state, or local custody at some point during the terrorism investigation. Last month, the department said 763 of those have been placed in its custody.

But while department officials would not provide a complete update of what has happened to the 1,200, they did say that, as of mid-August, 131 people have been charged with crimes investigators learned about during the post-Sept. 11 probe.

Those charges range from obtaining false identification to lying to federal investigators. Eighty-five people have entered guilty pleas. Only one person, Zacarias Moussaoui, has been charged with a crime tied directly to the terrorist attacks.

The government's aggressive investigation - with its use of secret evidence in some immigration cases, new investigative powers, and arcane and previously overlooked immigration statutes - has generated a wave of criticism from human rights groups, civil libertarians, and Muslims. For the men who have been ensnared in the federal dragnet, the debate is much more than a debate about civil liberties vs. national security.

For them, the losses are wrenching. Plans have been destroyed, dreams crushed.

The arrest

Ali Mounnes Yaghi, 34, a Jordanian of Palestinian descent, was well established in Albany by the time the FBI came to ask him a few questions last September. He arrived in the country on a visitor visa in 1985, at age 16. He later obtained a student visa and applied for political asylum.

In 1992 he married Shokriea, a friend's sister, whom he had tutored in physics and precalculus. A native of Afghanistan, she was a naturalized US citizen. Yaghi wanted citizenship, too, or at least permanent residency status, and he slogged through the byzantine immigration process in an attempt to get a green card. He saved money and bought a local pizzeria.

By late August of last year, he had bought and sold several pizzerias in Albany. He had also sold the family's comfortable three-bedroom home in July. His wife and three children had left for Jordan that month on a long-planned trip to visit relatives.

On Sept. 20, while checking on licensing issues with the Albany police for a taxicab registered under his name, Yaghi said, detectives asked why he had sold his properties and sent his family away. Yaghi said he told the police that he sold his properties, which had been on the market months before the attacks, because he was planning to join his wife and children in Jordan. A week after answering those questions, Yaghi said, he was arrested.

His immigration status left him vulnerable. He had applied for a green card after marrying Shokriea and had been told, he said, that it would be approved. But in June 1992 immigration officials tried to deport him after he pleaded guilty to carrying a gun without a permit. Yaghi said he had been robbed delivering pizzas and carried the gun for protection. He served six months in jail and appealed the deportation order.

FBI officials in Albany did not return several calls. Bill Carter, a spokesman for the FBI in Washington, declined to comment on the case. But Yaghi said he heard from an attorney that federal investigators seized upon his case because someone told them that Yaghi knew one of the hijackers, Marwan Al-Shehhi. Yaghi said he had never met Al-Shehhi.

With his September arrest in Albany, Yaghi's nightmare had begun. Authorities told him that he was being taken into INS custody on immigration violations, he said. But his first stop was the FBI office in Albany, where he said he was questioned and asked to take two lie detector tests. He was told that he failed both.

''Because of my beard and the way I dress, they figured I am bin Laden or something,'' Yaghi said.

He was taken to the Schenectady County jail in upstate New York for a month and then, in late October, transferred to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where many of those rounded up during the terrorism investigation have been held.

Shokriea Yaghi and the boys, still in Jordan, did not know about his detention, but they noticed an ominous sign. ''He used to call every other day,'' she recalled. ''Then, he stopped calling, and I didn't know why.''

Expanded government powers

The Justice Department strategy for investigating the Sept. 11 attacks has been broad: Listen carefully to people who have information that might lead to suspected terrorists. Use material-witness warrants to hold people who might have information and who might leave the country before telling investigators what they know. Detain people who have violated immigration laws. Don't tell them why they are being detained unless legally required to do so. Hold them on immigration law violations while they are investigated for terrorist ties. Keep evidence in some immigration cases from defense attorneys and their clients if disclosure could hurt antiterrorism efforts. Deport those who are deportable, even if no terrorism ties can be verified.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has demonstrated little tolerance for critics of such tactics.

''To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve,'' Ashcroft told the US Senate Judiciary Committee in December. ''They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of goodwill to remain silent in the face of evil.''

Ashcroft has repeatedly said the investigation's chief aim is to prevent future attacks, which threaten the free society that civil libertarians are pushing to preserve. ''We cannot allow those who would destroy America to use our liberties as weapons against us,'' Ashcroft said in a Minnesota speech to judges last month. ''In order for there to be liberty in America, there must be an America.''

But immigration lawyers object to the way that immigration statutes have been used to hold people who otherwise would have to be charged criminally and given an opportunity to get a lawyer and post bail. Some state and federal judges have shown a willingness to reject the government's claims of broad powers in cases it links to terrorism.

Those judges have ruled against the government's attempt to use material-witness warrants to hold potential suspects or witnesses for long periods. They have also demanded that detained immigrants be identified, and they have criticized government agents for providing false information in warrant applications and improperly sharing intelligence information with federal prosecutors. Last month, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati rejected the government's policy of closing deportation hearings for detainees linked to the terror investigation.

''Democracies die behind closed doors,'' the judges wrote. ''When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.''

Government lawyers, who have appealed other unfavorable rulings, are considering an appeal of that ruling.

Many of the cases in court now spring from the use of a wide range of new and expanded powers the Bush administration and Congress have given federal investigators. Those powers include:

Rule changes that allow INS detainees to be held without charges for 48 hours or ''an additional reasonable period of time'' in the event of an ''emergency or other extraordinary circumstance.''

New limitations on how long visitors can stay in the country.

Expanded authority for FBI officials in field offices to conduct terrorism investigations.

Rules allowing investigators to monitor telephone conversations between attorneys and criminal suspects if there is a ''reasonable suspicion'' a suspect may use those talks to plan or commit acts of terrorism.

Civil liberties groups have kept track of government use of the new powers, which they say are unfair, set a poor international example, and could provide justification for other countries to treat US citizens abroad the same way. ''What happens now if they do this to our citizens, our soldiers, in the rest of the world?'' asked Barbara Olshansky, assistant legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal rights group.

Despite the objections of civil libertarians, there has not been large-scale public disapproval of the investigation.

INS spokesman Russell Bergeron said the agency cannot ignore the fact that many of the Sept. 11 terrorists were from the Middle East. But he strongly denied that Muslim men have been targeted just because they are Muslim.

''Clearly not true,'' Bergeron said. ''The number of people taken into INS custody over the course of the investigation is 752. Even if every one were Arab or Muslim - and they are not -that in no way could be described as targeting that community.''

Sandra Nichols, an immigration lawyer in New York who handled Yaghi's case, called it crude ethnic profiling.

''They're not detaining people from Mexico. They're not detaining people from China. They're detaining Arab men from Middle Eastern countries between the ages of 20 and 40.''

Jail conditions

At the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, Yaghi said, he was kept on a floor that housed individuals suspected of involvement in the attacks. He said guards cursed and taunted him, made up offenses to take telephone privileges away, and confined him to his cell or the open-air recreation area, where inmates had to cope with the cold. Yaghi stayed in his cell for 118 days. He said he tried to pray at certain times each day, in accordance with Islam, but because the windows of his cell were painted he could not tell day from night. The lights of his cell beamed 24 hours a day. Guards, he said, would bang against the bars of his cell late at night as they made their rounds.

The Center for Constitutional Rights has filed suit against Ashcroft, the FBI, and the detention center, alleging mistreatment of INS detainees held there. The department's inspector general is investigating conditions at the jail.

Anser Mehmood, a former New Jersey truck driver who was deported to Pakistan, has complained of abuse at the detention center similar to what Yaghi says he experienced. Mehmood, who was arrested in October and detained until late May, said he was assaulted when he was transferred to the jail.

''They grabbed me from the van,'' Mehmood said. ''They threw me on the floor. Then, they grab me from the floor and throw me against the wall. I could not walk. They said, `Don't ask any questions. Otherwise, you're dead.' ''

Like Yaghi, Mehmood, who had overstayed his visa for two years, was held on immigration violations. But, he said in an interview from his father's home in Pakistan, an FBI agent told him he was a suspect in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Mehmood said he was in solitary confinement from October to February.

Mehmood's wife, Uzma, said she fruitlessly begged the FBI for information about her husband and had to sell personal belongings to pay for legal help. Her three oldest children did not understand what was going on.

''I sold my household furnishings, jewelry, furniture,'' she said. ''I sell everything, and we sleep on the floor. The kids don't realize why their mother is selling their things.''

In February, Uzma moved back to Pakistan with the children after visiting her husband in jail. Mehmood, 42, was deported on May 20.

Life in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, has been difficult.

The family lives in a single room in the home of Mehmood's father. The children, one of whom was born in the United States, were rejected by good public schools because they speak English and not the national language, Urdu. They were teased in Bayonne, N.J., as the children of terrorists; in Pakistan, they are taunted as English-speaking American rejects. Mehmood has no job and no prospects for one.

''I left my house,'' he said. ''I left my business. I left my truck. I am back at zero. I don't know what to do.''

`He had nobody'

Yaghi's family wanted Shokriea to stay in Jordan, but she gathered the boys and returned to Albany in March. ''I wanted to be here to fight for him,'' she said. ''He had nobody.''

It was not until early April, Yaghi said, that he was no longer considered a suspect in the attacks and was transferred to the general population. His weight had gone from a solid 171 pounds to 148.

In mid-May, Yaghi and his wife had their first conversation since the arrest. ''He didn't want to show any emotion because he didn't want them to hear it,'' Shokriea said. ''He said the guards would make fun of him at a later point.''

On June 24, Yaghi was deported.

Shokriea Yaghi has not given up hope that the same nation that took her husband in, saw him prosper, but turned against him after the terrorist attacks will open its arms to him again.

Yaghi, who has not seen his wife and children since last July, is not so sure.

''To be honest with you, I think she is dreaming,'' he said, the resignation in his voice coming through the line from Amman.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 9/7/2002.
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