Donald Trump’s Muslim Laptop Ban Could Be a Protectionist Scheme
April 5, 2017
THE DEPARTMENT OF Homeland Security announced an unprecedented new restriction on travelers from 10 airports in eight Muslim-majority countries on Tuesday.
The DHS restriction states “that all personal electronic devices larger than a cell phone or smart phone be placed in checked baggage at 10 airports where flights are departing for the United States.”
It’s a Muslim laptop ban.
The 10 airports are in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
American-based airlines do not fly directly to the United States from these airports, so these restrictions will not apply to them. The impact of this move will instead fall on nine airlines, including Gulf-based carriers that U.S. airlines have been asking President Trump to punish since the day after his election.
The U.S. carriers have long complained that Gulf carriers such as Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways are unfairly subsidized by their national governments.
Executives at Delta Airlines, United Airlines, and American Airlines met with Trump in early February. The day before the meeting, a group representing these American airlines, called the Partnership for Open & Fair Skies, distributed a slick video using Trump’s own words to argue against the subsidies.
With this new travel impediment, Trump may be throwing these executives a bone. The new restrictions appear to be targeting airports that serve as flight “hubs” for these airlines — such as Dubai International, which is the hub of Emirates. Airlines use these hub airports to transfer passengers between flights, delivering significant savings.
California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, quickly rose to the defense of Trump’s DHS on Tuesday, calling the restrictions both “necessary and proportional to the threat”:
Ranking House Intel Dem Schiff backs new electronics ban on US-bound flights from 8 Muslim-maj countries – critics say measure is arbitrary pic.twitter.com/3zPwehf2ZW
— Jessica Schulberg (@jessicaschulb) March 21, 2017
In 2015, Schiff was one of 262 Members of the House who signed a letter protesting subsidies for the Gulf airlines. The letter is featured on the website of the Partnership for Open & Fair Skies.
Whatever the motivation, the security justifications are unclear at best. The Guardian interviewed a number of top technologists about the new policy on Tuesday, and they were puzzled. “If you assume the attacker is interested in turning a laptop into a bomb, it would work just as well in the cargo hold,” Nicholas Weaver, who is a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute, told the paper.
“From a technological perspective, nothing has changed between the last dozen years and today. That is, there are no new technological breakthroughs that make this threat any more serious today,” Bruce Schneier, a top technologist at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, told the Guardian. “And there is certainly nothing technological that would limit this newfound threat to a handful of Middle Eastern airlines.”
The United Kingdom enacted similar restrictions hours after the United States, but with two puzzling differences. The U.K. ban includes 14 airlines, including six based in the U.K. And it does not include airports in Qatar or the UAE — which are the epicenter of the subsidies dispute. Canada is reportedly weighing its own restrictions.
For its part, Emirates responded by inviting customers to sample its in-flight entertainment in lieu of tablets and laptops — by repurposing an old advertisement featuring Jennifer Anniston:
Let us entertain you. pic.twitter.com/FKqayqUdQ7
— Emirates airline (@emirates) March 21, 2017
March 21 2017, 7:51 p.m.
Find this story at 21 March 2017
The Many Mysteries of the Muslim Laptop Ban
April 5, 2017
A new Homeland Security rule will ban electronics on flights from airports in Muslim-majority countries. Is this protectionism or prudence? Well, it’s complicated.
Travelers from eight different Muslim-majority nations will no longer be allowed to carry laptops, tablets, or certain other electronic devices with them in the cabin on flights inbound to the U.S., according to new rules that take effect on Tuesday. The U.K. was quick to announce that it would follow suit with a Muslim laptop ban of its own.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration say that the new rules reflect a potential threat of terrorists smuggling explosive devices on board planes using portable electronic devices—iPads, Kindles, and the like. The DHS guidance cites a 2016 attempted airliner downing in Somalia as one recent incident that could be linked to a laptop bomb. The U.S. rules affect last-point-of-departure airports from 10 airports—some of them the busiest hubs in the Middle East—from Saudi Arabia to Istanbul to the UAE.
Behind the order, though, lies a long history of conflict between America’s big three carriers—Delta, United, and American—and their peers in the Gulf. Critics spied an ulterior motive behind the Trump administration’s new rule: a protectionist measure for U.S. carriers promised by President Donald Trump.
Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman floated this notion in the Washington Post, suggesting that the financial security of United, American, and Delta might be behind the new counterterrorism measures. The U.S. airlines have grumbled for years that their counterparts from the Gulf—specifically Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways—benefit unfairly from government subsidies. Those carriers have recently expanded their service to U.S. cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C. (as any Washington Wizards fan can tell you, since Etihad is a major advertiser in the Verizon Center).
Back in February, the chief executives of United, American, and Delta sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson complaining about the “massive subsidization of three state-owned Gulf carriers … and the significant harm this subsidized competition is causing to U.S. airlines and U.S. jobs.” In a meeting with the executives shortly thereafter, Trump promised “phenomenal” tax relief, broad deregulation, and other forms of support to the industry.
It’s not yet clear whether this laptop travel ban applies exclusively to all inbound flights from Muslim-majority airports or just those from Gulf carriers. If the latter, that would be a boon to U.S. operators. International business-class travelers—and there are a lot of them circulating between the U.S. and the Middle East—are bound to prefer flights that allow them to work on the plane. During a 14-hour nonstop haul from Dubai to Dulles, passengers are likely to appreciate all the electronic conveniences and entertainment they can carry.
But a one-sided ban would also be a plain violation of trade rules. Global airline carriers have been duking it out over national subsidies for years. In September, the World Trade Organization ruled that the European Union had been illegally propping up Airbus to the tune of $22 billion, a decision that the Washington Post described as “the most expensive dispute in international history.”
A U.K. electronics ban in the Gulf would bite the hand that feeds British Airways.
The Financial Times reports that the rule applies only to non-U.S. carriers: Saudi Arabian Airlines, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Qatar Airways, Kuwait Airways, Turkish Airlines, EgyptAir, and Royal Air Maroc. Several of these state-owned airlines have indeed enjoyed massive subsidies from their governments. But there’s nothing in the guidance released by Homeland Security that specifies those carriers or otherwise exempts U.S. domestic airlines from the electronics ban. DHS is specific only about the 10 affected airports.
According to CNN, domestic carriers are not affected by the ruling because they do not operate any direct flights to the U.S. from those airports. A travel engine search corroborates and complicates that explanation. Delta runs flights from Cairo to Washington, D.C., that are operated by Air France, for example. British Airways operates American Airlines flights from Istanbul to New York. Both Delta and United operate inbound flights by other carriers—Lufthansa, KLM, and so on—from the restricted airports.
Homeland Security has not responded to a request for clarification. Across the pond, an electronics ban is even more more complicated, since Qatar Airways has increased its ownership stake in the parent company for British Airways to 20 percent after Brexit. A U.K. electronics ban in the Gulf would bite the hand that feeds British Airways.
These bans may be motivated by urgent and legitimate national security concerns. Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a Democrat, says that the electronics ban is justified. There is a debate to be had even if the threat is real, though. The tradeoff between travel security and convenience is an enormous drag on productivity (not to mention a cost for airports and airlines). The new rules may sidestep that debate. If an electronics ban applies solely to Gulf carriers, exempting domestic airlines, then it’s pretty plainly a protectionist measure, of the kind that Trump has explicitly promised to deliver for U.S. airlines.
The risk, of course, is that Gulf states could respond in kind—meaning that no one gets to binge on Netflix on international flights. Trade battles have a way of escalating quickly. After the European Union restricted hormone-treated beef from America in 1999, the Clinton administration retaliated with a 100 percent tariff on Roquefort from France. The Bush administration escalated the conflict—totally arbitrarily!—with a 300 percent duty on Roquefort in 2003. The ensuing cheese war lasted nearly through the Obama administration.
Depriving Americans of imported fromage is one thing; taking screens away from their toddlers could represent a whole other degree of inconvenience. Whether or not the Trump administration is pushing protectionist trade policies under the guise of national security, it seems likely that international flights are going to feel a whole hell of a lot longer.
KRISTON CAPPS @kristoncapps Mar 21, 2017 10 Comments
Find this story at 21 March 2017
Copyright 2017 The Atlantic Monthly Group.
Portland man: I was tortured in UAE for refusing to become an FBI informant (2015)
August 14, 2015
Yonas Fikre, who attends a mosque where at least nine of its members have been barred from flying, says the US no-fly list is being used to intimidate American Muslims into spying on behalf of US authorities
When Yonas Fikre stepped off a luxury private jet at Portland airport last month, the only passenger on a $200,000 flight from Sweden, he braced for the worst.
Would the FBI be waiting? That would mean more interrogation, maybe arrest. But he told himself that whatever happened it could hardly be as bad as the months of torture he endured in a foreign jail before years of exile in Scandinavia.
A US immigration officer boarded the plane and asked for his passport. Fikre handed over the flimsy travel document that was valid for a single flight to the US. The officer said all was in order. He was free to go.
“I don’t think they knew who I was. I think they thought I was just some rich guy who’d come on a private jet. A rapper or someone,” said Fikre.
The 36-year-old Eritrean-born American was finally back in Portland at the end of a five-year odyssey that began with a simple business trip but landed him in an Arab prison where he alleges he was tortured at the behest of US anti-terrorism officials because he refused to become an informant at his mosque in Oregon.
Fikre is suing the FBI, two of its agents and other American officials for allegedly putting him on the US’s no-fly list – a roster of suspected terrorists barred from taking commercial flights – to pressure him to collaborate. When that failed, the lawsuit said, the FBI had him arrested, interrogated and tortured for 106 days in the United Arab Emirates.
As shocking as the claims are, they are not the first to emanate from worshippers at Fikre’s mosque in Portland, where at least nine members have been barred from flying by the US authorities.
“The no-fly list gives the FBI an extrajudicial tool to coerce Muslims to become informants,” said Gadeir Abbas, a lawyer who represents other clients on the list. “There’s definitely a cluster of cases like this at the FBI’s Portland office.”
They include Jamal Tarhuni, a 58 year-old Portland businessman who travelled to Libya with a Christian charity, Medical Teams International, in 2012. He was blocked from flying back to the US and interrogated by an FBI agent who pressed him to sign a document waving his constitutional rights.
“The no-fly list is being used to intimidate and coerce people – not for protection, but instead for aggression,” said Tarhuni after getting back to Portland a month later. He was removed from the no-fly list in February after a federal lawsuit.
Detained, then put on the no-fly list
Another member of the mosque, Michael Migliore, chose to emigrate to live with his mother in Italy because he was placed on a no-fly list after refusing to answer FBI questions without a lawyer or become an informant. He had to take a train to New York and a ship to England. In the UK, he was detained under anti-terrorism legislation. Migliore said his British lawyer told him it was at the behest of US officials.
“We have a name for it: proxy detention,” said Abbas, Migliore’s lawyer. “It’s something the FBI does regularly. It’s not uncommon for American Muslims to travel outside the US and find they can’t fly back and then they get approached by law enforcement to answer questions at the behest of the Americans.”
I refused to answer questions. That’s when the beating started
Fikre’s problems began not long after he travelled to Khartoum to set up an electronics import business. He still had relatives in Sudan after his family fled there when he was a child to escape conflict in Eritrea. Fikre’s family arrived to California as refugees when he was 13 and he moved to Portland in 2006 where he worked for a mobile phone company.
Not long after he arrived in Khartoum in June 2010, Fikre went to the US embassy to seek advice from its commercial section. A couple of days later he was invited back to what he was told would be a briefing for US citizens on the security situation. Instead he found himself in a small room with two men.
“They pulled out their badges. They mentioned their names and said they were from the FBI Portland field office,” he said.
The agents were David Noordeloos and Jason Dundas, both attached to the Joint Terrorism Task Force at the FBI office in Portland. Fikre was immediately suspicious because of the agents’ duplicity in luring him to the embassy.
“They said, we just want to ask you a few questions. Right away I invoked my right to have a lawyer. Then they became threatening,” he said.
Fikre said it swiftly became clear the agents wanted information about his mosque in Portland, Masjed As-Saber.
The mosque is the largest in Oregon and drew the FBI’s attention not long after 9/11. In 2002, four years before Fikre arrived in Portland, seven members of its congregation were charged for attempting to travel to Afghanistan to join the Taliban. Six received prison sentences. A seventh was killed in Afghanistan.
In late 2010, a Somali American, Mohamed Osman Mohamud, was arrested and later convicted for plotting to blow up the lighting of downtown Portland’s Christmas tree amid allegations of FBI entrapment. He occasionally prayed at the As-Saber mosque.
Fikre has acknowledged meeting Mohamud but said he was no more than a passing acquaintance and that he had left for Sudan months before the plot was even hatched or the FBI became involved.
When Fikre hesitated to answer the agents’ questions, he was told he had been placed on the US “no-fly list”.
“I asked them, why am I on a no-fly list after I leave the country? I said to them, you did this in order to coerce me to work with you guys,” he said. “They said there’s a case in Portland and they wanted me to help them. I asked, what is this case about? They said, we can’t talk about it. You have to agree you’ll work with us and if you agree, we’ll tell you.”
Fikre said he would answer questions about the mosque but he was not going to work as an informant.
“Eventually I was answering questions because you know how it feels to be in a room with two of the major agencies and you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “They wanted to know about fundraising. Were there any people that made me feel uncomfortable? What do they talk about during Friday sermons?”
‘The choice is yours to make’
The FBI’s account of the interrogation is summarised in a declassified document written a week later and marked “secret”. It is heavily redacted but Fikre’s claim that he was lured to the embassy under false pretences appears to be confirmed by a line which says that after being escorted to an interview room, “Fikre was informed of the true identity of the agents”.
Yonas Fikre Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Yonas Fikre. Photograph: Dan Lamont
The document shows part of the questioning focussed on financial transactions including his attempt to open a bank account in Dubai, which Fikre said he needed to do business in the region.
“Fikre was asked if he knew anyone related to international terrorism. Fikre denied any knowledge of anyone attempting to train or go to train for terrorist acts against the US or its interests,” the FBI document said. “Fikre agreed to assist and stated that he honestly does not know of anyone attempting to leave the US to attend terrorism related training.”
Fikre agreed to return for further questioning the next day.
“I said OK because I wanted to get out of there,” he said. “The next day I called David Noordeloos and told him, I’m wasting your time and you’re wasting my time. I don’t plan to work for you guys. He got very angry and he said, you mean to tell me you don’t want to work for us?”
About two weeks later, Fikre received an email from Noordeloos.
“While we hope to get your side of issues we keep hearing about, the choice is yours to make. The time to help yourself is now,” it said.
That was the last he heard from the agents. Fikre conclude Khartoum wasn’t the best place to do business and decided to try his hand in the United Arab Emirates but first went to visit relatives in Sweden. He worried that the no-fly list might create difficulties.
“If I was a threat, you would think the US would tell them. If some British guy was coming to this country and he was a threat, the US would be very pissed off if the British knew and didn’t make them aware of it. But nothing happened in Sweden. I came to Sweden normally,” he said.
That only confirmed Fikre’s belief he was on the no-fly list as a means to pressure him not because he was a terrorist threat.
Weeks later he moved to the UAE where he established himself trading in electronics with financial help from his family in California. Months went by. Then in June 2011 he was arrested by the local police.
“I didn’t know what was happening until I was taken away and the next day, that’s when I knew that it was questions related to Portland, Oregon,” he said. “At first I kept on saying, I’m an American. I need my lawyer, I need my embassy. They said to me, the American government don’t care about you. Then they started asking, tell us the story about what’s going on in Portland. The same questions the FBI were asking in Sudan about As-Saber I was being asked in the UAE.”
Fikre swiftly concluded the US had a hand in his arrest.
“Without a doubt this was instigated by the FBI. Why would the UAE ask me questions about this particular mosque in Portland?” he said.
So began months of interrogation.
“I refused to answer questions. That’s when the beating started,” he said. “They started with punches, slaps. They got tired of that so they brought water hose. There’s the hard ones, the black ones, and there’s the soft ones. The soft kind they would use for strangling. When I refused to answer, they put that thing on my neck. They had me lay down and beat me on the soles of my feet. They beat me on the back constantly.
You want to believe it’s not true, that some employee made a mistake
“If they weren’t beating you, they made you stand for eight hours with your hands raised. The beating was much better than the standing.”
The torture continued even when he was alone in his cell at night.
“I was sleeping on tiles, very cold tiles. They put on this AC so it was very cold. The body can’t take this cold on top of the beating,” he said. “That’s when I decided to answer their questions.”
‘You want to believe it’s not true’
After eight weeks of demanding to see someone from the US embassy, he was told he was being taken to meet American diplomat but warned not to say anything about his torture or it would delay his release, which was promised within days.
Fikre found himself sitting in front of woman who only identified herself as Marwa.
“I look all fragile, pale. I’ve lost a lot of weight. I’m drained. I wanted to tell her the situation but I felt like I was so close to my freedom, just two days, three days, and I was getting my ass beaten, and if I tell her it’ll set me back,” he said.
Fikre asked why it took so long for the US to find him, a citizen held by the security services of a close ally. He said Marwa told him they had been looking hard. Later he learned he was being held just blocks from the US embassy.
The State Department has confirmed that a US diplomat visited Fikre while he was being held in the UAE on “unspecified charges”. It said he “showed no signs of having been mistreated and was in good spirits”.
Fikre was not released and the questioning resumed. But an incident gave him hope. An interrogator beating Fikre with a hose caught him on the funny bone in his knee. He collapsed in agony. The man appeared alarmed he had done lasting damage.
“I thought to myself, why would you care? You were strangling me just a few days ago. Then I realised they didn’t want to leave me with any visible injuries. That’s when I had hope that I would get out of there,” he said.
Fikre said he was given a lie detector test but instead of more questions about Portland he was asked if he was a member of al-Qaida or soliciting funds for it. He denied it strenuously. He said it was clear from the response of his interrogators that he passed the test.
Through it all Fikre could not shake the sense that someone in the US had outsourced his interrogation to a place with few legal constraints.
“Toward the end of his interrogation [Fikre] inquired of his interrogator whether the FBI had requested that he be detained and interrogated,” the lawsuit said. “This time, instead of being beaten, the interrogator stated that indeed the FBI had made such a request and that the American and Emerati authorities work closely on a number of such matters.”
The FBI in Portland said it is unable to comment directly on the allegations because they are the subject of pending litigation. But an FBI spokesperson, Beth Anne Steele, said in a statement that the agency works within the law.
“A fundamental FBI core value is the belief that every person has the right to live, work and worship in this country without fear. As such, FBI agents take an oath to uphold the US constitution and to protect the rights of every American citizen under the Constitution, no matter where in the world an agent may working. This holds true every day in every situation,” she said.
After 106 days of imprisonment, the UAE released Fikre without charge.
The no-fly list prevented Fikre from flying back to the US so he opted to go to Sweden where he applied for political asylum. His application was rejected in January because he was unable to prove the US had a hand in his imprisonment although the Swedes accepted that he had been tortured.
In February, Fikre was finally formally notified by the US government he was on the no-fly list because he “may be a threat to civil aviation or national security”. Sweden paid for a private jet to fly him to Portland five years after he left.
Fikre has not been charged with any terrorism related crimes or even questioned as a potential threat on his return to the US. He remains on the no-fly list.
“It’s hard to comprehend that the government does something like this. You want to believe it’s not true, that some employee made a mistake,” he said. “I could be angry but anger doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t answer the question of why I was there. You can’t have this anger build up against your own government, your own country, your own people. I’m an American. I want to try to move on.”
Chris McGreal in Portland, Oregon
Monday 16 March 2015 11.38 GMT Last modified on Wednesday 18 March 2015 21.00 GMT
Find this story at 16 March 2015
© 2015 Guardian News and Media Limited
American Muslim Alleges FBI Had a Hand in His Torture (2012)
August 14, 2015
EXCLUSIVE: Yonas Fikre believes the US government played a role in his hellish three-month detention in the United Arab Emirates.
UPDATE: Fikre’s lawyers have written a letter to the Justice Department about his allegations and released a video of him talking about his ordeal.
Last June, while Yonas Fikre was visiting the United Arab Emirates, the Muslim American from Portland, Oregon was suddenly arrested and detained by Emirati security forces. For the next three months, Fikre claims, he was repeatedly interrogated and tortured. Fikre says he was beaten on the soles of his feet, kicked and punched, and held in stress positions while interrogators demanded he “cooperate” and barked questions that were eerily similar to those posed to him not long before by FBI agents and other American officials who had requested a meeting with him.
Fikre had been visiting family in Khartoum, Sudan, when, in April 2010, the officials got in touch with him. He agreed to meet with them, but ultimately balked at cooperating with FBI questioning without a lawyer present and he rebuffed a request to become an informant. Pressing him to cooperate, the agents told him he was on the no-fly list and could not return home unless he aided the bureau, Fikre says. The following week he received an email from one of the US officials; it arrived from a State Department address: “Thanks for meeting with us last week in Sudan. While we hope to get your side of the issues we keep hearing about, the choice is yours to make. The time to help yourself is now.”
“When Yonas [first] asked whether the FBI was behind his detention, he was beaten for asking the question,” says his lawyer. “Toward the end, the interrogator indicated that indeed the FBI had been involved.”
Fikre made his way to the UAE the following year, where, he and his lawyer allege, he was detained at the request of the US government. They say his treatment is part of a pattern of “proxy” detentions of US Muslims orchestrated by the the US government. Now, Fikre’s Portland-based lawyer, Thomas Nelson, plans to file suit against the Obama administration for its alleged complicity in Fikre’s torture.
“There was explicit cooperation; we certainly will allege that in the complaint,” says Nelson, a well known terrorism defense attorney. “When Yonas [first] asked whether the FBI was behind his detention, he was beaten for asking the question. Toward the end, the interrogator indicated that indeed the FBI had been involved. Yonas understood this as indicating that the FBI continued to [want] him to work for/with them.” Nelson, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Council on American Islamic Relations are assembling a high-powered legal team to handle Fikre’s case in the United States.
Fikre’s story echoes those of Naji Hamdan, Amir Meshal, Sharif Mobley, Gulet Mohamed, and Yusuf and Yahya Wehelie. All are American Muslim men who, while traveling abroad, claim they were detained, interrogated, and (in some cases) abused by local security forces; the men claim they were arrested at the behest of federal law enforcement authorities, alleging the US government used this process to circumvent their legal rights as American citizens.
As Mother Jones reported in its September/October 2011 issue, the FBI has acknowledged that it tips off local security forces on the names of Americans traveling overseas that the bureau suspects of involvement in terrorism, and that these individuals are sometimes detained and questioned. The FBI also admits that its agents sometimes “interview or witness an interview” of Americans detained by foreign governments in terrorism cases. And as several FBI officials told me on condition of anonymity, the bureau has for years used its elite cadre of international agents (known as legal attachés, or legats) to coordinate the overseas detention and interrogation by foreign security services of American terrorism suspects. Sometimes, that entails cooperating with local security forces that are accustomed to abusing prisoners. (FBI officials have told Mother Jones that foreign security forces are asked to refrain from abusing American detainees.)
It’s difficult to confirm US involvement in the detentions of Fikre or other alleged proxy detainees—indeed, plausible deniability is part of the appeal of the program. But what’s clear is that Fikre was on the FBI’s radar well before his detention in the UAE. (The FBI declined to comment on his case, as did the State Department.) Fikre, whose only previous brush with the legal system came when he sued a restaurant for having ham in its clam chowder, may have drawn the FBI’s interest because of his association with Portland’s Masjed-as-Saber mosque, where he was a youth basketball coach.
The mosque has been a focus of FBI scrutiny ever since the October 2002 case of the “Portland Seven,” in which seven Muslims from the Portland area were charged with trying to go to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban in the wake of 9/11. (Six are now in jail; the seventh was killed in Pakistan.) Masjed-as-Saber was in the news again in 2010 when Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old Somali American who sometimes worshipped there, was charged with trying to detonate a fake car bomb provided by an undercover FBI agent.
More recently, three other men who attended Fikre’s mosque—Mustafa Elogbi, Michael Migliore, and Jamal Tarhuni—have found themselves on the no-fly list after traveling abroad. (The government’s use of the no-fly list to prevent American terrorist suspects from returning home after traveling overseas is currently the subject of a major ACLU lawsuit.)
Fikre’s case “really does make a mockery of the FBI’s use of watchlisting as a means of protecting the US,” says Gadeir Abbas, a staff attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “It’s not a means of protecting America—it’s a tool the FBI uses to put people in vulnerable positions.”
It “really does make a mockery of the FBI’s use of watchlisting as a means of protecting the US.”
Fikre, who is currently living in Sweden and believes that it would be unsafe for him to return to the United States, has given a series of videotaped interviews detailing his ordeal. His presence in Sweden beyond the three-month window allowed for tourist visas suggests that he has applied for permanent status there, and local media have so far refrained from reporting on the story for fear of affecting his case to stay in the country.
In the interviews, Fikre describes a series of events that are similar to the 2008 case of Naji Hamdan, a Lebanese American auto-parts dealer from Los Angeles who was then living in the UAE. Like Hamdan, Fikre claims he was detained in the UAE, tortured (including with stress positions and beatings on the soles of his feet, so as to not show marks), and asked about his activities in the United States. Like Hamdan, Fikre believed a western interrogator was present in the room at some points during his detention, because when he could peek out under his blindfold (“after being kicked/punched and falling over,” Nelson says) he occasionally saw western slacks and shoes. “In those occasions there was a fair amount of whispering,” Nelson added.
The similarities between the two cases were so striking that Michael Kaufman and Laboni Hoq, lawyers who are representing Hamdan in his separate case against the government, initially thought that Fikre had simply parroted Hamdan’s story. But once they heard more, they decided “the backstory of why the government was interested in him was reasonable and something that didn’t sound fabricated,” Kaufman said. “It seemed like a long way to go for a lie,” Hoq added.
A key difference between Hamdan’s and Fikre’s stories is that Hamdan eventually confessed—under torture, he now emphasizes—to being a member of several terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda. He ultimately spent 11 months in UAE custody before being deported to Lebanon, where he now runs a children’s clothing store. Despite an extensive FBI investigation, he was never charged in the United States.
Fikre, his lawyer says, “never confessed to anything”—”thankfully.”
“The FBI does this stuff because they can get away with it,” Nelson says. “But the bureau has totally destroyed any relationship it had with the Muslim community in Portland.”
UPDATE, Wednesday, 1:00 p.m. EST: Fikre’s lawyers have released a video of him talking about his ordeal (they’ve also written a letter to the Justice Department). You can watch the video here:
—By Nick Baumann | Tue Apr. 17, 2012 3:01 AM EDT
Find this story at 17 April 2012
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