In a December 23 phone interview from prison, Abdel-Muhti said the U.S. government’s threat to deport him is part of a nationwide wave of arrests and government harassment of immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia. In his case, government officials have explicitly targeted his political activities as an opponent of Washington’s policies and a defender of the Palestinian struggle for a homeland.
The interview was conducted in Spanish, which the Palestinian activist speaks fluently.
Abdel-Muhti’s supporters are waging a campaign to stop his deportation and to defend his right to stay in this country, where he has lived since the 1970s. He is currently incarcerated at the Passaic County Jail in Paterson, New Jersey, one of the prisons used by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) because of the overflowing of its own jails.
Immigration cops have more than once threatened to deport Abdel-Muhti and turn him over to Israeli police if he does not give them information about other individuals in the United States and in Palestine.
In mid-December an undisclosed number of Palestinians jailed by the INS were deported to Egypt and taken by land to Israeli-occupied Gaza, U.S. Justice Department officials stated. The officials said they had arranged the deportations with the Israeli and Egyptian governments, and expected to secure similar arrangements to deport Palestinians to the occupied West Bank through Jordan. The implicit threat that these Palestinians--especially those who, like Abdel-Muhti, are politically outspoken--will be subject to imprisonment or torture at the hands of Israeli officials is none too subtle.
"They are trying to silence the fight for justice and freedom of the Palestinian people," said Abdel-Muhti in explaining these U.S. moves.
When the U.S. government accelerated its war drive in the fall of 2001, it initially rounded up some 1,200 people as "terrorism" suspects, mostly U.S. residents born in Middle Eastern or South Asian countries. Because U.S. officials refuse to release names and figures, the number of people of Arab or South Asian origin who remain locked up in INS jails today is not known. Unable to pin any serious charge on them, the INS has kept many locked up on minor charges such as not having their immigration papers in order.
Some of those facing deportation are being held indefinitely because they have not been able to provide all the documents the INS claims it needs to complete the deportation process. They are denied release on parole even though they have lived and worked in the United States for a long time and are in no way a "flight risk."
Palestinians are among those caught in the immigration cops’ catch-22. Denied national rights by the Israeli regime and internationally, Palestinians often travel with a passport from another country or a United Nations refugee passport. Abdel-Muhti has neither. He was born in Ramallah, on the West Bank, which at the time was under the British Mandate. He has no passport or ID from Israel or from Jordan--or from the Palestinian Authority, since he has been living in the United States for more than 25 years. As a result, Abdel-Muhti says, he is legally a stateless person and cannot be deported to Israel or Jordan.
Locked up more than eight months
The Palestinian activist has now been locked up for more than eight months without a hearing. His lawyers have filed a complaint and a habeas corpus petition--a motion for his release--in U.S. district court in Newark, New Jersey. The motion argues that, under a 2001 Supreme Court ruling barring indefinite detention, INS must either deport or release individuals after holding them for six months.
The INS says it is holding him on the basis of a 1995 deportation order. Although they had not acted for the past seven years, the cops knocked on his door in April of this year.
Abdel-Muhti has been involved in many different political activities in the New York area. He is active in the Palestine Education Committee and the Palestine Aid Society, and has spoken at events in defense of the Cuban Revolution.
Earlier this year he had been hosting a regular program on WBAI radio in New York on the struggle of Palestinians in the occupied territories. About three weeks before his arrest, while he was speaking on the radio, a group of INS agents burst into his apartment in Corona, Queens. Bernie McFall, his roommate, reports the cops threatened to throw him out the window of the 14th-floor apartment if he tried to block their search of computer files and phone directories.
Early in the morning of April 26, INS agents and New York city cops showed up again at the apartment, demanding to question him about September 11. Claiming they believed there were weapons and explosives in the apartment, they threatened to break down the door. Once inside--without a warrant--they arrested him and carted him off to jail. As they left, one of the cops turned to his roommate, McFall, and said, "We’ll get you next."
Detained at the INS offices at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan, Abdel-Muhti was interrogated and threatened with being deported and turned over to the Israeli secret police if he did not give them a list of individuals in the U.S. Arab community and in Palestine.
"You are playing with my dignity and my principles," he replied in refusing the demand. He was then beaten.
Conditions in INS jails
Since his arrest, Abdel-Muhti, 55, has been moved to three different prisons--the Middlesex, Camden, and Passaic county jails in New Jersey. His supporters say he has been moved because the protests organized outside prison walls on his behalf and his advocacy both of his cause and that of fellow inmates inside the jails are a headache to the authorities.
"The conditions are horrible in the INS prisons," said Abdel-Muhti in the interview. "When they take prisoners to see the immigration judge, they keep you handcuffed and shackled the whole time until they take you back to the jail," he said. "You can spend 10–12 hours waiting like that."
In addition to constant interrogations, prison authorities have sometimes denied proper medical care to Abdel-Muhti, who suffers from high blood pressure and has had chest pains because of the cold temperatures inside the jail.
When Militant reporters spoke with the Palestinian activist on December 23, he had just been interviewed by a special agent of the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, investigating an incident his attorneys had reported in which INS cops had threatened Abdel-Muhti with a gun.
The incident happened last July, when the INS was transferring Abdel-Muhti to the Camden County jail. "An INS cop knocked on the window of the car where I was sitting, handcuffed, waiting to be transferred. He pointed a gun at my face, as he laughed and kept the finger on the trigger," Abdel-Muhti said.
To further harass him, on the way to the Passaic County jail the cops took him to the INS offices at the Newark airport, where he was held for several hours. They later claimed they had mistaken him for somebody else.
In another incident in October, Abdel-Muhti and several other prisoners were taken around to several consulates in Manhattan to try to get them travel documents to facilitate their deportation. They took him to the Honduran consulate, trying to see if they could get him deported to Honduras--where he had lived at one time--but the consulate refused to accept him and he was taken back to the jail.
‘Our voices must be heard’
At the end of the interview, the Palestinian militant put several other inmates briefly on the phone. The jail is a veritable United Nations, with inmates from many countries in the Mideast, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Europe. Militant reporters were introduced to three men--immigrants from Lebanon, Pakistan, and Cuba--who had been arrested several months ago. "My brother from Pakistan is under a gag order," Abdel-Muhti said as he turned over the phone to him. "He can’t tell you his name, but he can tell his story. Once you hear his story, you will realize it is an injustice for him to be here."
"Our voices must be heard amidst the nationalist flag-waving," Abdel-Muhti said. He expressed his opposition to the U.S. moves toward war against the people of Iraq, and emphasized, "We are with the people of the United States in their fight against the injustices committed by the U.S. government in this country."
Abdel-Muhti said he had been following the campaign to prevent the deportation of Militant staff writer and Perspectiva Mundial associate editor Róger Calero, whose release on parole 10 days earlier--after a flurry of protest messages to the INS--he called "a victory for all of us."
The Palestinian liberation fighter said that the support his own fight for freedom has gained is important. His fight has become intertwined with that of others facing a similar situation. Recently, fellow prisoners there have issued statements in both Arabic and in Urdu denouncing the conditions they face.
Picket lines demanding Abdel-Muhti’s release have been held every Friday at noon at the New York City Federal Building at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan (Broadway at Worth St.). Those who want to support the defense campaign can contact the Committee for the Release of Farouk Abdel-Muhti, P.O. Box 20587, Tompkins Square Station, New York, NY 10009; tel: (212) 674-9499; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. The committee is asking defenders of Abdel-Muhti to contact the INS district director in New Jersey, Andrea Quarantillo, to demand his release: tel: (973) 645-4421, fax: (973) 297-4848.
Letters can be sent to him at: Farouk Abdel-Muhti, #91544, 4G4, Passaic County Jail, 11 Marshall St., Paterson, NJ 07501.
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