BALTIMORE – In a case study of John Ashcroft’s “TIPS” program gone berserk, a neighborhood here was evacuated the night of Sept. 12 while the FBI grilled an innocent Arab-American man based on a false tip-off that he was building a bomb in his garage. Said Ziyout, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Rabat, Morocco, and his wife, Susanne Lynn Ziyout, recounted their harrowing ordeal at the home of a Palestinian-American family who had come to their defense.
Baltimore County police later admitted that the tipster, a man named Joseph Kosyjana, who has an arrest record for “driving under the influence,” has now recanted his bizarre story that he saw the bomb while visiting Ziyout in his home.
It was not an isolated case. Three medical students of Arab background, Ayman Gheith, Kambiz Butt and Omer Choudhary, two of them U.S. citizens and the third here on a valid student visa, were stopped by 700 police officers on a Florida Interstate Sept. 12. The highway was closed for an entire day and they were kept handcuffed in squad cars overnight while their car was searched for a bomb. All this was based on a “tip” from a Georgia woman who thought she overheard them planning to “bring down” a building. In fact the students were talking about “bringing down” a car from their home in Chicago for use during their hospital residency in Miami.
This too was a case of a false tip-off. The incidents occurred a day after George W. Bush delivered a speech at the United Nations calling for war on Iraq. That same day Ashcroft put the nation on a “code orange” alert, unleashing a nationwide dragnet targeting people of Middle Eastern background.
The Ziyout family’s nightmare began just after Said closed his small TV repair, Sept. 12, and was getting into his car. An unmarked squad car blocked his way. Plainclothes officers rushed up and without identifying themselves ordered him to place his hands on the hood of the car and splay his feet. He was arrested and handcuffed. The police drove him to a suburban police station where he spent hours in an interrogation room.
“They read me my rights and I replied, ‘What for? What did I do?’” Ziyout told the World. He asked them if he could call his wife, to make sure their three children were safe. They refused. “She’s already there with the kids,” one of the officers replied. They did not inform him of his right to make a telephone call.
FBI agents arrived, placed him in their vehicle and drove him to his home. More than a dozen plainclothes detectives were searching the house and garage. Baltimore County police had gone door-to-door ordering the Ziyouts’ neighbors to evacuate.
The FBI began to interrogate Ziyout. They produced a police mug shot of Kosyjana. “I only knew him as ‘Joe.’ He sold me old VCRs he had picked out of dumpsters. I would repair them and put them out for sale,” Ziyout said. Ziyout sometimes rejected junk that Kosyjana brought in. On one occasion, Kosyjana became enraged and threatened to kill Ziyout.
The police tipster also attempted to sell him a handgun. “I told him I couldn’t have a gun in the house. I have children.”
The FBI also grilled Ziyout about his political beliefs. “‘What do you think about Israel?’” they asked. “I told them I have never belonged to any political organization.”
Susanne said plainclothes detectives accosted her the moment she arrived home from her job as a paraprofessional teacher’s assistant. “They took me into custody and told me they believed there was a bomb in my house.” Susanne showed me the affidavit given to the police by Kosyjana in which he claimed Ziyout had shown him a “cylindrical steel object approximately three feet in length” with “CCCP” written on the side (USSR in the Cyrillic alphabet). Kosyjana claimed there was a “timing device at one end that was counting down from 68 hours.”
It smacks of racial profiling, she said. “How could they believe this man? They evacuated our entire neighborhood and searched our entire property and found nothing. We will write a letter to all our neighbors explaining what happened,” she said. “We won’t apologize because we have nothing to apologize for.”
The Ziyouts are filing a “hate crime” complaint against Kosyjana and are seeking a restraining order barring him from their neighborhood. Her deepest regrets, Susanne said, is the fear instilled in her children. “They took our 12-year-old son and interrogated him separately, asking him about his father’s political beliefs.” She also expressed anger at the attempt to instill suspicion against the Arab and Muslim community. “We spend many evenings on our deck with our Arab friends sipping mint tea, laughing and talking. Now we are afraid to speak Arabic in public.”
Ziyout told me he is not a political person. But he has drawn a profoundly political conclusion from the incident.
Bush has said, “You are either with us or you are against us.” But Said Ziyout believes that “them vs. us” attitude “just breeds more hatred. I came here to make a living, to support my family. I believe in the Constitution of the United States and the rights it gives everyone. I have been victimized because of my faith. What they did to me, they can do to anyone.”
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