Sunday, June 26, 2005

The FBI "witch-hunt" in Lodi, California

By Veena Dubal and Sunaina Maira

On June 7th 2005, national and international media
attention focused on the small, agricultural town of Lodi,
located approximately forty miles south of Sacramento.
The FBI arrested and detained two individuals, both
Pakistani-Americans, who they suspected had al-Qaeda
affiliations. The investigation was presented as a
“terrorism case” by the government and news sources. The
initial affidavit released to the media said that
U.S.-born Hamid Hayat, had attended a terror-training camp
in Pakistan along with “hundreds” of other terrorists, and
returned to the US intending to “attack . . . hospitals
and large food stores.” This kind of detail resulted in a
flood of sensationalized media coverage, portraying
23-year old Hamid as a prospective mass murder and his
father, Umer Hayat, a 47-year old ice cream truck driver,
as the financial supporter and mastermind of an alleged
“Lodi terrorist cell”.

Neither allegation, however, was in the affidavit filed
with a federal court in Sacramento the same day. The FBI
retracted their affidavit alleging Hamid’s plot to attack
domestic targets and began downplaying the seriousness of
the presumed threat the men posed. Both Hamid and Umer
were ultimately charged only with lying to federal
investigators about Hamid’s visit to Pakistan in 2003.

Three other Muslim men from Lodi, among them two
respected imams, were also detained on suspected visa
violations. One of the imams had actually been the target
of FBI surveillance beginning three years ago when a
secret court used the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance
Act (FISA) to approve wiretapping of Mohammed Adil Khan.

While the Justice Department has maintained that it was
not deliberately trying to precipitate an anti-Muslim
witch hunt, the difference between the two affidavits –
the one released to the media and the one filed in court –
as well as recent FBI activity in Lodi, speak a different
story. None of the five men have been charged with
carrying out or planning to commit any act of violence.

The many inconsistencies in the case and the hysteria it
stoked coincided very neatly with Bush’s campaign to renew
and expand the 2001 Patriot Act, which can only be
justified if there was an ongoing “terrorist threat” and
the public continues to fear that there are Muslim or Arab
terrorists in their midst.

On June 14, we traveled up to Lodi to assess the impact
of the arrests and surveillance of the local South Asian
community, which is estimated to consist of over 2500
Pakistanis, some of whom have been living in the town for
three generations. Basim Elkarra, Executive Director of
the Sacramento office of CAIR (Council on American
Islamic Relations) has been diligently organizing in
response to the arrests and interrogations of local
Pakistanis by FBI agents swarming into town and warned us
prior to our arrival about the extent of surveillance and
the fear the community felt. But no amount of warning
could have prepared us for the state of near siege in the
town. As soon as we stepped out of our car in Lodi, we
were made aware of the FBI’s presence. Not only is the
entire Muslim community being surveilled by the FBI, which
had interviewed many of its members, sometimes without an
attorney present, in the days following the arrest – so
are the attorneys and activists who are making sure that
constitutional rights are upheld. During our brief visit
with Mr. Elkarra and civil rights attorneys from the ACLU,
a man with a large afro-wig in a blue SUV circled us and
took photos. When we tried to approach him, he fled, only
to return later to take more photographs. His conspicuous
appearance made us realize the extent to which the FBI
harassment is not at all a secret investigation: it is an
overt act of intimidation of the community at large.

One of the attorneys we spoke to noted that the
community feels “terrorized.” Residents believe that they
are being interrogated by the FBI and placed under
automatic suspicion because they are Muslim.. Pakistanis
who attended the “Know Your Rights” workshops held by CAIR
in Stockton, Lodi, and Pleasanton were all subject to
obvious FBI surveillance. One Muslim mother told an
attorney that her young child was followed from her home
to an ice cream store by an FBI car. Others complained
that they were taken out of their places of employment by
the FBI for questioning and then could not return because
their co-workers became suspicious of them. The most
shocking of these reports was that of an incident where
the FBI stormed the Hayat home, when only women and
children were present, by ramming down the front door and
putting a gun to a woman’s head. When her eleven-year old
daughter passed out, she was denied medical attention, a
gross violation of human rights that outraged even the
local emergency care personnel.

After handing out “Know Your Rights” fliers to community
members who have been repeatedly questioned, we went to
visit the Lodi mosque that is under FBI scrutiny. The
mosque is a small, humble structure – a former Jehovah’s
Witness church – next to the cannery where Pakistani men
have worked as fruit packers, in some cases for more than
thirty years. South Asian and Latino children were
playing basketball together across from the mosque while
older South Asian men sat on the grass, presumably
relaxing after a long day’s work. Most of the Muslims who
attend this mosque speak Pashtu and are from the Northwest
Frontier area of Pakistan. Some have family that had been
in the area since as early as 1908, working on the
railroads. They told us that the FBI began coming to Lodi
immediately after September 11th, making “friends” with
mosque members. The men all seemed undaunted by the FBI
siege. However, it was clear within minutes that beneath
the welcoming, calm exterior, was a harassed,
interrogated, and scared community. One man described to
us, without looking around, exactly where each federal
agent’s car was parked; we saw the three large,
black-tinted SUVs just yards from the mosque and the
courts where the young boys were playing. Another
middle-aged man said calmly, “Let them come ask us
questions; we have nothing to hide.” While this
resilience was encouraging, we were reminded by another
Pakistani man who had already been questioned several
times that while he did not mind speaking to the FBI, it
was frightening for his wife and children. In addition,
this has led to a racist backlash by some Lodi residents
agitated by the lurid media reports about Islamic
terrorists and sleeper cells.

The government’s investigation in Lodi has been conducted
in a way that does not respect the legal rights and
dignity of the Muslim community: individuals have been
systematically discouraged from exercising their right to
an attorney and have been disallowed access to attorneys;
there has been at least one detention of an individual who
was not read his Miranda warnings; and women and children
have been intimidated and denied medical care. Perhaps
equally disturbing, however, is that the general public
has been given new reason to fear South Asians and Muslims
as presumed terrorists. A community that has made this area home for over one hundred years has been
investigated, intimidated, and cast under a shroud of
suspicion, all within days.

Veena Dubal is a JD/PhD student at the University of
California at Berkeley, Boalt Hall, and Sunaina Maira is
an Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at the
University of California at Davis. Both are volunteers
with the SF Bay Area organization, ASATA – Alliance of
South Asians Taking Action.

See previous coverage of Lodi on Ihsan:

Lodi California

Civil Rights Now!

7 comment(s):

  • All you Moslems are a bunch of terrorists. It is about time our President rounded up all of you! We were victorious against Japan because we did not tolerate Anti-American activities by the Japanese living in our country, and we won't tolerate Anti-American activities by you people either!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6/26/2005 04:48:00 PM  

  • I am not a Muslim myself. Without any vested interest in the matter, I would still like to reply to the previous comment in a logical fashion.
    First, categorical generalizations about human beings are often a logical fallacy. In this case it just so happens that all Muslims are not in fact terrorists. There are somewhere around 1 billion Muslims in the world today. That's nearly 1/6 of the world's population. If all of them were terrorists we would all be goners. Furthermore history has shown that being born in the United States does not categorically assure one's loyalty to the homeland. Aldrich Ames, convicted of espionage for the former Soviet Union in 1994, was born in Wisconsin.

    Secondly, as a U.S. citizen myself, I certainly would hope that President Bush, or any American President, would not "round up" Muslims merely because he suspected the entire religion of mass treason. Without evidence and due process such an action, similar to the WWII japanese internment camps, would violate basic civil rights that American-Muslim citizens are entitled to.

    Thirdly, we did not in fact win the war in the Pacific against Japan because of our staunch guard on the japanese-american populace. What did turn the tide was superior military power, industrial productivity, and a team of scientists who invented the world's first atomic bomb. Astonishingly, volunteers from among japanese-americans were the most valiant on the European front; I cannot think of a greater proof of their loyalty and patriotism than that.

    In sum, there is rarely a logical case for xenophobically hating on an entire category of people. It's alright to have qualms with a different culture or religion or ethnicity because they seem strange or unknown, but just remember, more than any other country in the world America has been built on the constant influx of diverse peoples from all over the world.

    Unless you're a Native American there's little cause for xenophobia when looking to the well being of your homeland.

    On the other hand... if you're Native American that might be the on case where, historically, you are justified in fearing outsiders.

    Have a nice day.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6/27/2005 12:31:00 AM  

  • I like your blog carry onthe good work that you are doing; just ignore the bigoted comment that you received.

    By Blogger nooras thoughts, at 6/27/2005 01:08:00 PM  

  • Salaams

    The behaviour of the FBI in Lodi is nothing short of outrageous. Is this the land that once embraced Thomas Paine?


    The Muslim Anarchist

    By Blogger Julaybib, at 6/29/2005 01:43:00 AM  

  • Yea, tough luck. I guess we lied to you. Why don't you go home?

    I don't take ethics advice from Islam. You managed to make whole hemispheres into failed misreable places and you want to pull us down with you. Pakistan is a failed miserable place, its fails humaity. Bad in human rights, womans rights, rape as part of the legal code, phenomenal illiteracy

    Thomas Paine would love Americans me becuase he would take on the evil of you.

    It might be wrong to hate you because your skin color or religion (Islam isn't a religion, its a form of government that poses as a religion)becuase I can hate you becuase of rape statistics in Europe. Muslims can't keep thier hands off of White girls, you are just savages. Sweden et al tries to hide the fact but the truth comes out. You are animals.

    We'd like to be friends with you but your behavior preculdes that. You frighten us but you really do want that.

    Do the right thing and go home.

    By Blogger Dulouz, at 11/12/2005 06:28:00 PM  

  • Unfortunately, a few negative comments posted here were made by ignorant scum, some of whom are probably career criminals themselves! It's the person, not the race, religion or sex of someone that makes them guilty, so get a clue to those of you who prefer to be demeaning morons, in order to hide your own ignorance, namely "Dulouz" and "just some American college student", who has probably failed all courses!!

    Unfortunately, corruption is a rampant fact, especially now that government is so out of control of itself, and the rest of the nation. Too many allowances have been made for bad cops, repeat criminals, and those in authority who continue to fail in their duty and especially those who are there for all the wrong reasons! Lack of integrity is a sad truth, but one found everywhere. Unfortunately, the responsible investigator will refuse to "lose face" by admitting his own vulnerability and lack of integrity, as he probably just wanted to "make a name for himself"...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/22/2006 02:56:00 PM  

  • This whole case was an absolute experiment in stupidity and fear. I lived in Lodi during that time and my kids went to the Boys and Girls club across the street from the mosque where "the terrorists" all went. Pakistanis will agree to just about anything to make their company feel more comfortable. I even went up to the (undercover) FBI agent who was infiltrating the "terrorist" cell at the time and said "G-d be with you" in Arabic and he said "huh? Oh, I just converted. I don't speak the language." He was 6 ft tall with red hair. Me and my kids always made fun of him because he stuck out like a sore thumb. Hamet and his family are good people. There seems to be a real cultural miscommunication. This is how paranoid Lodi had become: I was in a fender bender there in front of their mosque and when about 20 muslim men ran to help us, not kill us, the woman I got in an accident started screaming that they were going to kill her. Absolutely ridiculous. We all just want to raise our children in peace and be left alone. Isn't that what America is about anyway??

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6/26/2008 08:41:00 PM  

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