Ashraf Aljailani in the USA: Story unveiled [Archives:2004/741/Community]
By Shaker Al-Ashwal
New York Correspondent
In his speech in Buffalo, President Bush said that the case of the “Lackawanna Six” shows why America needs the Patriot Act to remain in force. The six Yemenis who pleaded guilty to aiding Al-Qaida are now serving prison sentences based on their attendance at an Al-Qaida camp in Afghanistan. While promoting the renewal of the Patriot Act, President Bush will not visit Kent, Ohio and will not be mentioning Ashraf Al-Jailani. Thanks to the provisions of the Patriot Act, the Yemeni national has been held without charge, in a Pennsylvania prison, for more than 18 months.
Ashraf's story would not have surfaced had it not been for the activism of his wife, Michele Swensen; Michele has launched a campaign to free her husband. Her campaign includes a website devoted to freeing her husband (www.helpashraf.com), an aggressive letter-writing campaign, and appearances in functions where she speaks about her husband's legal ordeal.
Ashraf Aljailani, a geochemist who holds a master's degree and speaks four languages, was arrested at his workplace, the GOJO plant. The FBI alleged that he has ties to terrorists and planned to blow up GOJO Industries' Cuyahoga Falls plant, where he worked for two years prior to his arrest. More than a year and a half later, he has not been charged with any terrorist-related activity, and has not even been directly interrogated by the FBI. The FBI, however, continues to visit his wife, sometimes to ask her to identify the pictures of Middle Eastern men.
In the legal realm, Ashraf Al-jailani has been held despite repeated court orders to release him on bail. Judge Walt Durling has ordered his release and has asserted that he is held without enough evidence. In one of his rulings, Judge Walt Durling ordered the custodial authorities to “take Al-Jailani's passport and track him with an electronic monitor, but release the Yemeni native who has been held without charges for more than a year.” The FBI has submitted evidence against Al-Jailani which alleges that he would be of monumental threat to the community according to Roger Charnesky, the FBI agent who testified in his case. Durling found the evidence unsatisfactory and determined that “there is no direct evidence linking the respondent to terrorism, only certain indirect 'links' to others known or suspected of being associated with terrorists.” When judge Durling asked why the FBI has not questioned Al-Jailani, Charnesky said that the bureau assumed Al-Jailani would simply lie. The answer shocked the judge, especially considering that the government deals with suspects who lie all the time. Michele Swenson informed me that Ashraf has stressed his willingness to cooperate with the FBI and to take a polygraph test, but the FBI has not taken him up on his offer. As he did last March, U.S. Immigration Court Judge Walt Durling ordered Al-Jailani freed on bond for the third time, but the government intends to appeal against his decision. Judge Durling believes that “the Bureau will persist in detaining this respondent no matter this court's ruling.”
More than 18 months later, Ashraf feels that he has been abused, and mentally and emotionally tortured. His suffering in prison is now more complicated by the loss of his 3 children Amina, 7, Layla, 5, and Sami, 3, to government custody after their mom, Michele, suffered from a depression. The family has been shattered by his arrest, the children's removal and Michele's hospitalization. Michele, whose depression has been made worse by the removal of her children from her care, has found herself leading a campaign to reunite her family again. She is now leading a war on two fronts: one to free her husband and the other one to regain custody of her children who are now being cared for by foster parents.
Since his detention, Ashraf has been represented by attorney Farhad Sethna, an Akron immigration lawyer. Mr. Sethna has been frustrated by government tactics. In a recent interview, he indicated that the government is “playing such a dirty game, throwing dirt at him and trying anything to make it stick.” “They don't charge him, they don't interview him, and he's not even a material witness in any of their other cases.”
For many attorneys, these are strange times in the U.S.; many never imagined the draconian laws that have been imposed. “The government can lock up any non-citizen on no evidence, or very little evidence, and throw away the key,”said David Leopold, who teaches immigration law at Case Western Reserve University. How many times around the country has this happened?” he asked.
Ashraf's ordeal can hardly be explained or justified in the name of national security. Government officials acknowledge that most Arab and Muslim immigrants swept up in counterterrorism sweeps have no ties to terrorism. Whether the government will finally give up and become convinced that Ashraf does not pose a security risk to the community or to his employer who is willing to hire him again remains to be seen. For now, Michele will have to continue to struggle to answer Layla's pressing question “When is baba coming?”