The Patriot game
After 9/11, Americans were bombarded with images of "evildoers". But while photos of Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta were plastered across newspapers and TV screens, other suspects, mostly invisible to the American public, came under the scrutiny of the recently established Joint Terrorism Task Force. Most have been immigrants with green cards or work/student visas. One was Kuwaiti national Hasan Hasan.
After immigrating to the United States in 1996 to study English at California State University in Long Beach, Hasan immersed himself in campus and civic affairs. He helped found a chess club and a French film society, served as advisor to several international student groups, and volunteered at the alumni association and the local Jewish Community Center. He was active politically, attending rallies for the American Socialist Party and participating in the movements to free prisoners Geronimo Pratt and Mumia Abu Jamal. Hasan completed a Master's Degree in Mathematics and taught as adjunct instructor.
Perhaps because of his political activism, Hasan has been dogged by suspicion. Within a year of his arrival, the FBI had questioned him about his pro-democracy activities in Kuwait. In later run-ins with the authorities, both resulting from spurious claims (one for sexual harassment, another for a bomb threat), the charges were quickly dropped.
In April 2002 he was arrested without explanation by the INS and incarcerated for 2-1/2 weeks at the agency's Mira Loma Detention Center north of Los Angeles. Less than a month after his release, he was re-arrested and detained for almost three months, until his accuser's unreliable testimony resulted in the dismissal of the case. Hasan now awaits an INS deportation hearing that will determine his eligibility to remain in the US.
We chatted over lunch at a sidewalk café in Venice Beach. In front of us on the Venice boardwalk, a Mecca for LA tourists, people of all nationalities and colors strolled comfortably together.
Lloyd: You were a Middle Eastern man living in the US on the day of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. What did you feel that day?
Hasan: I had been reading the night before, and I slept very late. I woke up at 6:00, turned on the TV, and I couldn't believe what was going on. I saw the first hit, the second hit. Then there was the third hit on the Pentagon. Some of my buddies were standing outside, and I said, "This is the worst tragedy in America." I've never seen that many people die in one single day. I didn't believe any terrorist organization could reach this degree of sophistication - four planes hijacked at the same time. Someone in America had to be part of the plot, or several terrorist organizations working together, maybe. I couldn't believe it could be done without access to high-profile files and information. People from all parts of the world died that day, not only Americans. The President, by using the word "crusade," gave many Muslims the impression that the war on terrorism was a war between Christianity and their religion.
Lloyd: There was a lot of anti-Middle Eastern and anti-Muslim sentiment immediately after the attacks. Did you experience any?
Hasan: Many people were nicer to me than usual - they had heard about the attempted murders of people originally from the Middle East - or from India or South Asia because they look Middle Eastern. A gentleman from Egypt was killed. He was a Coptic Christian, but he looked like any other Middle Easterner. A Sikh with a turban and had a long beard was killed because he looked like a member of Al Qaeda or a Muslim Afghani.
Many Middle Eastern and Asian people stayed at home. I kept going out to coffee shops, coming home late. Friends told me to come home early. I told them I appreciated their concern, but I wouldn't change my lifestyle - this is a free society and a very strong country, and I hadn't done anything wrong. I felt very positive, and I thought that the law enforcement agencies were for me.
Lloyd: But you were arrested and detained for two periods, for over three months combined. The first arrest came on April 23, 2002. What happened?
Hasan: I was in my classroom at Cerritos College teaching mathematics. The dean of the Division of Science, Math and Engineering asked me to see him in his office after class. He seemed very uncomfortable: "I don't know how to put it. I am just a messenger." I was one of the best instructors he had, I had done all the paperwork and he had no complaints about me: "I know how much students love you, but I received an order from the college vice president to relieve you from duty. I am very sorry, but I need you to turn over the keys right now and leave." I asked him at least to give me a reason. "No reason was given; I am just following orders." It was a critical time for the students who had an exam the day after next. I asked that he at least wait two days. "Sorry, I can't."
I turned my keys over to him, shook his hand and left. Outside the door, two college security people were waiting for me. They escorted me to the exit of the division building, where two Long Beach Police Department cops were standing. One of them told me, "Put your hands behind your ass and spread your legs." Then they handcuffed me and led me to the parking lot.
Lloyd: Did they read you your rights or give you any idea what was going on?
Hasan: I had no idea. After I had waited an hour in the sun, two civilian women rushed toward me. One identified herself as an INS agent and told me that I was an illegal and un-naturalized entity in the US and that I was under arrest. When I told her that I had a work visa valid until December 2002, she said that I was violating my work visa because I was not working. "I just came out of my classroom," I said. The agent told me, "You were working till an hour ago, but now you are not."
The agent said that the college needed the students' grades. I had the complete grades at home, so the agents and police officers accompanied me to my Long Beach apartment. I offered to show the agent the grades, but she told me to sit down and sign a consent to search my apartment. I signed the consent, and then she and the other INS agent and the two Long Beach cops undertook an intensive search through my belongings.
The INS agent came out of my room waving a bilingual booklet of Christian prayers, in Latin and English. I explained that I had bought it from a church in New York I had visited last year, to learn Latin. Later she came out of my room waving a money order I had made out to a non-profit, non-political and humanitarian Jewish organization. She wanted to know why I was giving money to Jews if I was an advisor to a Muslim club on campus. I told her that I didn't see any contradiction.
The INS agent said that as an advisor to a Muslim club, I must have been teaching the students to hate Jews and Christians. I'm not a spiritual advisor, but an academic advisor. The advisor of any club on campus takes care of administrative matters and does not teach the club members. The advisor has no right to run the club.
The agent went back into my room and came out holding a little can containing a flammable substance. I explained that I used it when I went camping for lighting.
Lloyd: Pretty damning evidence.
Hasan: Yes (laughing) Two hours later, I was taken to the Long Beach jail. After a half-hour, the INS agent informed me that my name had come up as a suspect in a serial rapist case. She told me to sign a consent to take a DNA sample from me. "No," I said, "and squarely no. I refuse. I am confused."
At this point, she changed her aggressive attitude and tone. In a very kind way, she kept trying to convince me. After an hour I was tired of her talking to me nonstop, and I signed the consent. They kept me for a day in the Long Beach jail, and the next day I was transferred to the LA County Jail. After a day there, I was taken to the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster. So, one day I was teaching mathematics at Cerritos College, and the next thing I knew I was in INS custody in Lancaster.
Lloyd: What was it like at Mira Loma?
Hasan: When I arrived, there was an Armenian sitting next to me. The handcuffs were hurting him unbearably. An officer asked me to act as a translator between him and the Armenian. He didn't know the difference between an Armenian and an Arab.
We were escorted to a section where about 140 men were huddled. It was called the Jackals section. It was reserved for Arabs, but I discovered that eighty per cent of the inmates were Armenian. What did the Armenians do to deserve having faces similar to Arabs'?
Lloyd: Other detainees at Mira Loma had a much more difficult time than you?
Hasan: Kamilian, an Armenian in his early Twenties, and his sister were raised by their grandmother in Russia. Their parents migrated to the US and found a place to live in Glendale, California, a year before the collapse of the USSR, and later received residency. The children wanted to surprise their parents by coming to visit them without notice. They were arrested at LAX and taken to the Mira Loma Center. All their belongings, including the papers containing their parents' address, were deposited in the property department. An inmate has no right to access his property before leaving custody. Kamilian and his sister had been there for three months with no way to contact their parents or each other.
Another was Gary LeMaitre, an Arab-Armenian/Canadian. He is about 50. He is a lawyer. He has lived in the US for the last 15 years. He is married to an American woman, and he has three American daughters. He went to the INS, accompanied by his wife, to receive his green card. The employee asked him to step outside for five minutes. Four cops arrested him. When he protested, they insulted him in front of his wife. He had been at Mira Loma for almost eight months when I met him. He was there without any charge and without a court date.
Lloyd: You were finally released after two and a half weeks, and taken into custody again on 6 June. Did the police read you your Miranda rights or tell you why you were being arrested this time?
Hasan: No. I had been up very late watching the World Cup. I had been asleep for about two hours when the police came into my apartment. They handcuffed me and searched the place. They asked if I knew any of the hijackers, if I had any flight manuals. They asked if I had visited the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. I told them no, but I said that I had traveled a lot, and that I had visited the UN and the White House.
The Long Beach police and the FBI questioned me about three paintings. One had tall buildings and lightning from the sky. "Is this New York, and does lightning mean attack from the air?" I said that this was a new interpretation I never thought of, even though I made this painting about four or five years ago.
Another painting had an island within a lake or a river, and some buildings across from the canal. "This seems kind of like Ellis Island. But we don't see the Statue of Liberty. Are you planning to blow up the Statue of Liberty? Is this a kind of future projection?" I said, "I'm not sure if this is Ellis Island or not. I've traveled a lot, and sometimes after years, when you travel a lot, there are images stored in your mind, and then years later you come to draw something, and you find that it is not exact image you saw, or maybe it is just a combination of images from your childhood or from previous years.
There was a third painting of a power plant. "Is it the one in San Pedro?" I said, "Actually, it is the one down in Long Beach on Pacific Coast Highway. It was part of a project in which you go outside and choose any building and you draw it."
I had other paintings - nudes, modern, and so on - but they didn't pay attention to those. Many of my friends, when I came out of jail, joked with me: "Hasan, from now on, just hang nudes and modern paintings only. So you won't have this problem again."
Lloyd: So you were again taken to the County jail, where I believe you were beaten up?
Hasan: That was the first week. Inmates, who called me a terrorist, attacked me. I was unconscious and bleeding from my mouth. I wasn't able to talk or eat for three or four days, and I was refused medical attention - the guard kept telling me okay, maybe tomorrow. For five days I was very sick, and my blood pressure was high. My heart wasn't functioning very well, so they finally sent me to the clinic. Then they transferred me to the Desert Hospital, next to the detention center at Mira Loma.
Lloyd: What was it like, on a day to day basis, while you were in detention over the next three months?
Hasan: It was hard, especially for Middle Easterners and Jews; in the jail, they were hated the most. So it is very dangerous if you mention that you are a Middle Easterner or a Jew. I started telling everyone that I was Armenian, and from that point I never had a serious problem.
A Romanian Jew came to the jail. Because he had the same complexion, they thought we were from the same race. Many people in the jail told me, "Hasan, your are cousins with him, so you should go and talk to him." I told him, "Please don't mention that you are a Jew. You can say you are Romanian, but don't say you are Jewish. Say you are Catholic, and save yourself a lot of trouble."
Lloyd: Under the USA Patriot Act, there is a Joint Terrorism Task Force, basically a group of federal agencies - INS, FBI and others - that acts in connection with each other and with local police departments. They were involved in your arrest and detention, but it appears they are not required to submit a lot of the evidence to keep you detained. When your attorneys made discovery motions - to find out why you were being detained and what the basis of your charge was - the government initially would not disclose that evidence.
Hasan: Yes, the DA repeated that the FBI had evidence that I was a member in a terrorist organization. They were waiting for the FBI to produce the evidence. She said that for national security reasons, the FBI was not able to produce the evidence. And she wanted to postpone the hearings for three months.
Lloyd: Eventually you learned, through your attorney, that you'd been charged with making terrorist threats. What was the basis of those threats?
Hasan: They came from my roommate. I let him live with me as a favor to a friend. About a month after my first arrest, I evicted him. He was beating his girlfriend and causing problems with the neighbors, so I changed the locks and moved his possessions out onto the sidewalk. When he found his things outside, he called the police. He told them that I had threatened his life and that I was a terrorist - a member of the Fatah group from Kuwait. He made up stories because he was angry. I never threatened him - and Fatah is actually part of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Lloyd: At your last hearing, the DA called your ex-roommate to testify. What did he say on the stand?
Hasan: The DA asked him about 15 or 20 questions. It was obvious that they had prepared the questions and the answers. My roommate's answers were brief, and there were no inconsistencies or contradictions. But I could tell that he had been rehearsed. They had three months to prepare him. At the earlier hearings, the DA asked that his testimony be postponed because she said he was on vacation, even though I know he was not.
When the DA was done questioning him, my two attorneys, James DeMaegt and Guillermo Suarez, questioned him. They used some of the small details that I had provided them - details that I didn't believe, in the beginning, were important. His answers contradicted some of his earlier statements. The judge began to feel the whole thing was a set up. My roommate got angry, because he felt he was losing, and he said, "I believe this person deserves to be in jail, this dirty Middle Easterner who lives in caves." When he walked out of the courtroom, he insulted one of my lawyers, told my supporters, "You are siding with the devil," and he just kept going.
Lloyd: He just walked out?
Lloyd: Did the DA produce any evidence other than the testimony of your ex-roommate?
Hasan: The DA told the judge that the FBI had failed to produce any evidence. This was my third judge, who seemed more reasonable than the others. When the judge asked my lawyers if they'd like to dismiss the case, they made the motion to dismiss, and the judge dismissed the case.
Some local newspaper interviewed the DA. She was surprised that the case was dismissed and was expecting that I would get a minimum of 10 years.
Lloyd: Although the average American citizen has treated you well, maybe even better than before 9/11, the authorities obviously have not.
Hasan: Because people have been so wonderful, it has made things a lot easier. Though the police and the FBI harassed me, I still feel good, because many of my American friends are very supportive.
I fear that the authorities will expand what they are doing to include all categories or slices of the society, regardless of color or origin. Maybe they will start with foreigners on visa from certain countries. Then maybe they will expand to the people who have green cards from certain countries. Then maybe they will move to American citizens who are originally from countries put on the black list after 9/11. Then later on maybe they will include any American, white or black or Latino, who has been seen hanging around with Middle Easterners, or who has just spoken to someone who is Middle Eastern or Asian. Maybe these people will be harassed because the authorities think they have connections to a certain individual. So I think the campaign will expand, will include everyone in the future. The people who feel they are safe - it will come to them.
Lloyd: Maybe they will come after me for interviewing you.
Hasan: Maybe (laughing). Sometimes I ask young people, "Why don't you go and be an activist?" They say that they don't like to start trouble. I tell them that many people who get in a lot of trouble have done nothing. Many are arrested without any evidence, just because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. They may never have spoken in politics.
When I was put in jail, people stood up for me because I had spent many years defending other people. In the long run, you protect yourself by getting involved. But if you say to yourself: "I don't like politics, I want a quiet life - home to work, work to home," you will find nobody to stand for you when the police or authorities arrest you.