16 months behind bars – and counting – for Sept. 11 detainee

NEW YORK (AP) – Sadek Awaed says he remembers weeping only twice in his life: once when his father died, the other when terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center.

“Whatever hurts this country, hurts me,” he says. The 31-year-old cab driver from Egypt claims that he tried to help the FBI identify terror threats before authorities jailed him in New Jersey for immigration violations.

Sixteen months later, he is still behind bars. Awaed is among a small number of Arab and Muslim men detained in the six months after the Sept. 11 attacks who remain in custody.

The exact number of such cases from that tense period is difficult to determine. Officials have refused to discuss the detainees, citing confidentiality rules and national security.

An audit by the Justice Department’s inspector general put the tally of Middle Eastern men detained in the FBI dragnet at 762, with most of them now deported. Immigration lawyers say many were victims of a new brand of police profiling.

The inspector general’s report also found “significant problems” with the detentions, including allegations of physical abuse. Civil liberties groups have noted that only one of those detained, Zacarias Moussaoui, has been charged with any terrorism-related crime. He is charged as a conspirator in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Awaed’s lawyer, Sin Yen Ling, said he may be in a category of his own: a “quasi-informant” who was cast aside by the FBI, jailed without committing a serious offence and ordered deported to Egypt. There, he faces repercussions for his past affiliation with the outlawed radical group the Muslim Brotherhood, she said.

“He’s dealing with the same type of persecution here that he would there,” Ling said. “There’s no reason he’s been in jail for the past 16 months, except for his national origin and religion.”

Federal officials declined to discuss Awaed’s case.

Last month, Awaed was transferred to a jail in Upstate New York, where he was put with a group of Palestinians scheduled to be deported on a charter flight. But his lawyer appealed his deportation order, and he was returned to New Jersey until an immigration judge decides whether to reopen the case.

In court papers, the lawyer argues that Awaed deserves asylum because he could face government persecution and threats from radical Muslims if he were returned.

“If I go there, I may not see the sun again,” Awaed said in a telephone interview from the Hudson County Jail. A request to visit him in prison was denied by federal authorities.

Awaed grew up in Alexandria, the youngest of six children. His father, a fisherman, could not read or write.

As an aimless 18-year-old in 1990, Awaed said, he was recruited to attend meetings of the Muslim Brotherhood. For a time, he stopped watching television, and told his sisters “to cover themselves,” he said.

But the brotherhood’s extreme beliefs and its attitudes toward Christians eventually disturbed him, he said. He made his point by bringing the Bible to a meeting.

The group, Awaed said, expelled him with a vengeance. He said he still bears the scar from when some men held him down and pressed a fire-heated blade to his leg.

Awaed got a tourist visa and flew to New York in September 1991. In 1993, with his visa expired, he filed an asylum application.

The next decade was consumed by a series of low-pay jobs – cab driver, doughnut maker, used-car salesman – low-rent apartments and bad legal advice in Jersey City, N.J., and elsewhere. The asylum application was eventually rejected.

At one point, Awaed said, he believed local members of the Muslim Brotherhood were pursuing him, and he took refuge in Florida. He said he felt safe enough to return to New Jersey in 1997 and begin driving a cab.

After Sept. 11, FBI agents picked him up and asked him if he knew the suicide hijackers. “I told them I was clean, that I hadn’t done anything,” he said.

Awaed claimed that he was enlisted by FBI agents in New Jersey to help identify potential suspects in the local Arab community, and that he once turned in a man selling fake U.S. passports.

The FBI would not discuss Awaed’s claims.

On May 2, 2002, local police stopped Awaed for cutting off another driver. After police discovered he had overstayed his visa, he was jailed.

In jail, the FBI continued to question him. Guards warned him to behave, or they would “beat me up,” he said. “They told me if I complained, no one would believe me because I’m Muslim.”

Time passed. Now most of the guards have forgotten why Awaed’s there. “Are you INS?” they sometimes ask, referring to his immigration status.

Other Muslims who were detained in the post-Sept. 11 crackdown are long gone. Most men on his cellblock speak Spanish.

“I just keep thinking day and night, ‘Why am I here?’ ” he said.

Comments are closed.