News Analysis

In a stunning rebuff to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s version of the “war on terror,” Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, 34, a Saudi national studying computer science at the University of Idaho in Moscow, was acquitted by an Idaho jury after seven days of deliberation. Al-Hussayen’s acquittal followed a seven-week trial on charges that he had created an Internet network to help finance and recruit terrorists. The jury deadlocked on other charges of false statements and visa fraud and the judge declared a mistrial.

One juror, retired U.S. Forest Service employee John Steger, told the Oregonian, “There was no clear-cut evidence that said he was a terrorist, so it was all on inference.”

Al-Hussayen is a Ph.D. candidate who has studied in the U.S. for nine years, is a husband and a father, and helped organize a candlelight vigil for victims of Sept. 11. He helped set up web sites related to the study of Islam, including for the Islamic Assembly of North America and other groups, that the government alleges have links to militant groups. Government attorneys essentially argued their case against Al-Hussayen on the basis of guilt by association.

Rejecting outright any charges that his client engaged in terrorism, attorney David Nevin argued in court that the charges amounted to “an assault on Sami’s right to expression, and when you slaughter his rights, you slaughter all of our rights, and we must not permit that to happen.” After the acquittal, Nevin said, “I hope the message is that the First Amendment is important and meaningful in this country.”

Al-Hussayen still faces possible retrial on the unresolved false statement and visa fraud charges, and is still being held for deportation, which is being appealed. His wife and three children returned to Saudi Arabia earlier to avoid fighting deportation. Al-Hussayen has been jailed since his arrest in February 2003.

This is the second prominent case in which the USA Patriot Act has been rebuffed in the courtroom, but the acquittal still has a tremendous impact on the political landscape. The American Civil Liberties Union has brought a lawsuit against the Bush administration over provisions of the Patriot Act, claiming the Justice Department is profiling Muslims. They are challenging a provision that allows the FBI to review records held by third parties. The Oregon director of the ACLU, David Fidanque, told the Oregonian, “They’re looking at people’s religion, the mosques they attend, their politics, and they’re jumping to conclusions that reinforce their biases. Inevitably, they are sweeping innocent people into this net, and they’re forcing them to prove their innocence.”

Brandon Mayfield, recently released after being held for two weeks as a material witness under the Patriot Act, belonged to the Bilal Mosque in Beaverton, Ore. Shahriar Ahmed, president of the Mosque, said in a recent interview, “There is a palpable climate of fear” in the community.

On June 8, Ashcroft expressed “regret” about the arrest of Brandon Mayfield before the Senate Judiciary Committee, stating, “When we learned that the reservations of the Spanish were so substantial, we went to the court, asked for the release of Mr. Mayfield.” But Mayfield was arrested May 6, after the Spanish had rejected the fingerprint match on April 13 and again on April 21. He wasn’t released until May 20. Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., commented that “held as an enemy combatant, Mr. Mayfield would be in a military jail without the right to an attorney. And his truthful statements of innocence would be taken simply as failure of his interrogators.”

The Justice Department has not updated its reports to Congress regarding people detained as “material witnesses” since January 2003, when 50 people had been detained as material witnesses. Since then it has refused to update the statistics, saying they are covered by grand jury secrecy rules.

Michael Greenberger, a former Justice Department official who heads the University of Maryland’s Center for Health and Homeland Security, said of the Mayfield case, “It beautifully exemplified to the American public, in frames of reference they can understand, how wrong the government can be in the use of its preventive detention program outside the traditional constitutional processes.”

Apparently it was a lesson taken to heart by a jury in Moscow, Idaho.

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New bill aims to restore liberties

Combined World Sources

On June 16 Democratic Senators Edward Kennedy (Mass.), Jon Corzine (N.J.), Richard Durbin (Ill.), Russell Feingold (Wis.), and Patrick Leahy (Vt.) joined with Representatives Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and William Delahunt (D-Mass.) to introduce the “Civil Liberties Restoration Act,” a ground-breaking bill that addresses the federal government’s post-9/11 policies that unfairly target Arab, Muslim, South Asian, and other immigrant communities.

The bill specifically seeks to provide redress for cases of arbitrary or indefinite detentions, secret hearings, severe restrictions on due process, and violations of privacy and First Amendment rights. Supporters include immigrant and civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Council of La Raza, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and Human Rights Watch.

At press time the bill had not yet been assigned a number.