Feds intransigent on “enemy combatant”; apologize on bogus detention

In a victory for the Bush administration, the full 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals will reconsider a ruling that the government should charge Ali al-Marri, a legal US resident and the only suspected “enemy combatant” on American soil, or release him from military custody. The administration had asked the full 4th Circuit to review a three-judge panel’s June 11 ruling. The Justice Department had argued that national security will be threatened if the administration is not allowed to indefinitely hold “enemy combatants” within the US. Said Al-Marri’s attorney, Jonathan Hafetz of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law: “We believe the panel decision correctly decided and affirmed a basic American principle. We believe the panel’s holding will ultimately be vindicated.” (AP, Aug. 23)

Meanwhile, an Iraqi refugee living in Washington state has received a written apology and $250,000 from the US government for his illegal detainment by federal border and customs agents. Yet Abdul Habeeb and his attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) remain at odds with the government over whether Habeeb was a victim of racial profiling when he was improperly arrested in Havre, Montana, in April 2003.

At the time of his arrest, Habeeb was taking a train from Seattle to Washington DC, where he planned to take a new job as a journalist. When the train made an extended stop in Havre, Habeeb took a walk to stretch his legs and in the station. Stopped and questioned by immigration agents, Habeeb disclosed that he was a legal Iraqi refugee. He was nonetheless held for three days in Montana and then transferred to a federal detention center in Tacoma, where he spent four more nights. Then, with no explanation, he was released. With the assistance of the ACLU, Habeeb filed suit in federal court in Montana against the federal government and two border and customs agents, claiming unreasonable search and a violation of his due-process rights. He sought more than $600,000 in damages. The suit was dismissed, but the ACLU appealed the decision to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Border Patrol agents detained Habeeb because they thought he had failed to register with immigration officials as required by a regulation known as the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS), according to the settlement and the apology letter. The detention was improper because as a refugee, the documents say, he was exempt from the NSEERS requirements. Neither the settlement agreement nor the apology mentions racial or ethnic profiling.

Yet ACLU attorneys insist racial profiling was at work in the case. “It is a story that clearly points out the failings of government programs that target people for their looks,” said Kathleen Taylor, director of the Washington ACLU. (Seattle Times, Aug. 24)

See our last posts on the detainment scandal and the immigration crackdown.