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    Front Page
     Dec 10, 2005
SPEAKING FREELY
Punishing activists or pursuing terrorists?
By Maggie Mitchell Salem

Ramzy Baroud, who teaches mass communications at Curtin University of Technology in Malaysia and freelances for Asia Times Online, recently noticed he didn't have enough pages in his US passport for a trip to Dubai, where he was to participate in the 4th annual Arab Thought Foundation conference. So he added a stop at the American Embassy in Brunei to his pre-departure to-do list.

As the veteran journalist found out after waiting more than three



hours, the US government had him on a list of their own.

The perplexed consular officer adjudicating Baroud's request for extra pages said he could not return the passport nor could he provide any explanation beyond "this is very serious" and "you're on a list". Baroud and his family spent the weekend trapped in Brunei.

He was not idle. Then again, he rarely is. Editor-in-chief of PalestineChronicle.com and an ardent activist on behalf of the Palestinian cause, his unflagging (and 100% non-violent) campaign to broadcast the plight of his people so alarmed Israeli officials that he is excluded from returning to Gaza, his birthplace. Of course, this is just speculation. No Israeli official has ever divulged the reason for blacklisting him.

It is entirely possible that Baroud's predicament is a result of intelligence sharing between Tel Aviv and Washington. The Israeli designation is likely to have raised concern at the US Department of Homeland Security and other agencies.

During his unexpected sojourn in Brunei, he alerted friends around the world. Within 48 hours, an armada of non-governmental organizations - including Human Rights Watch, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) - along with a global network of allies had rallied to his defense.

The consular officer also had a busy weekend. Despite his repeated inquiries, the State Department had not provided him with an explanation for holding the passport. So, the officer told Baroud he had spent hours on the Internet, conducting his own rather crude background check in an effort to find some rationale for the instructions he had received.

Linda Mansour, an immigration attorney with the ADC who now represents Baroud, said that in 26 years of practice she had never come across a case of the US government seizing an American citizen's passport while abroad.

Perhaps cognizant of the legal quicksand, State reversed course over the weekend, and the embassy returned Baroud's passport to him with a generous supply of extra pages. Though a welcome development, the consular officer was once again unable to explain the about-face.

The delay caused Baroud to miss the conference and cost him thousands of dollars in phone calls and accommodation, to say nothing of the emotional anguish he and his family suffered that weekend. Yet he is not pursuing the all-American lawsuit.

When I e-mailed Mansour about the legal case, she replied that they are quietly seeking an explanation for all that transpired. Perhaps, as she put it, this may have been "a terrible mistake".

That optimistic assessment is actually quite plausible.

Ever since September 11, 2001, when the nation's fear allowed the Bush administration to convert hysteria into law under the guise of national security, and with the blessing of a weak-kneed Congress, the Patriot Act and other less well-known measures have eroded prized civil liberties.

American citizens such as Yaser Esam Hamdi (captured in Afghanistan while allegedly fighting US forces with the Taliban in 2001) and Jose Padilla (an alleged member of al-Qaeda), who were found to be "enemy combatants", are held indefinitely without legal representation or formally being charged with a crime; for speaking to each other in Arabic, Syrian American Ahmad al-Halabi (a US Air Force translator at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba) and Muslim convert James Yee, a US Navy chaplain, were deemed suspicious, monitored and eventually charged with espionage; 30-year legal resident and South Florida University Professor Sami Al-Arian, a tireless fundraiser and advocate for the Palestinian cause, faces 17 federal terrorism-conspiracy charges.

The silver lining? In all the cases above, and in many more, the government has failed to convince that all-important third pillar of democracy, the judicial system, that 9/11 sanctioned the suspension of American civil liberties.

In July, the Supreme Court ruled that while Congress did give President George W Bush authority to detain Hamdi as an enemy combatant, Hamdi maintained the right to challenge his detention in US courts.

In the spring, the government dropped the most serious charges against al-Halabi and Yee.

On December 5, a jury in Florida found al-Arian innocent of eight counts and was hung on the other nine, including the most serious terrorism-related charges.

Perhaps the most promising news came in September, when a federal judge, John Gleeson, ruled that former attorney general John Ashcroft and other senior government officials would have to testify in a lawsuit brought against them by Egyptian and Pakistani immigrants. The suit accuses them of organizing a campaign to violate the rights of Muslim immigrants held at the infamous Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, an American Abu Ghraib just a few miles from the Statue of Liberty.

Gleeson's opinion recalled a 1970 Supreme Court ruling that held former president Richard Nixon's attorney general John Mitchell liable for an illegal wiretap of a radical group. As Gleeson put it, "He [the attorney general] may on occasion have to pause to consider whether a proposed course of action can be squared with the constitution and laws of the United States."

Bush's team isn't conceding defeat just yet. A number of legal maneuvers are under way to circumvent the Supreme Court's decision to hear other detainees' cases. Despite his success in court, al-Arian may be deported.

But the courts are standing up to the administration, Congress has got its mojo back (just in time for 2006 elections), and Americans are waking up to the dangers of over-zealous and often-discriminatory law enforcement practices.

As Benjamin Franklin put it, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither."

Maggie Mitchell Salem is a former special assistant to US secretary of state Madeleine K Albright; a former career foreign service officer; former director of communications and outreach at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC; she now provides Middle East analysis to private and public sector clients in the US and the region, including a number of dailies in Arabic and English.

(Copyright 2005 Maggie Mitchell Salem)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.


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