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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 July 2006, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
US Muslims 'alienated by Patriot Act'
By Jenny Cuffe
File on 4

For US citizens, 4 July - Independence Day - is the most patriotic day in the calendar but for Sabri Ben Kahla and many of the country's six million Muslims, the word patriot has taken on a more sinister meaning.

US Muslims in a mosque
Some US Muslims feel they are being unfairly targeted

The 30-year-old graduate from Falls Church, Virginia, who once aspired to serving his country as a diplomat, has fallen foul of the US Patriot Act, an acronym for Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.

Since 11 September 2001, when more than 3,000 people lost their lives on US soil, the federal government has adopted a raft of new powers which include phone tapping and search without warrants as well as surveillance of bank accounts, internet records and even library lending lists.

Arabs and Muslims believe they are being indiscriminately targeted and suffer from an over-zealous use of the law.

Next week Ben Kahla is due to appear in court on two indictments of perjury before a grand jury.

In 2004, he was acquitted on a charge of training to fight with the Taleban and firing weapons in Afghanistan.

Now he maintains he is being tried a second time in a "vindictive" prosecution.

'Virginia Jihad'

On the orders of the FBI, Ben Kahla was arrested in Saudi Arabia where he had been studying at university.

On the plane home he was shackled, blindfolded and dressed in a Guantanamo-orange jumpsuit before being driven to jail in Washington under full police escort.

US Muslims pray outside courthouse in Alexandria
A protest was held against the "Virginia Jihad" case

He was detained for a month before learning that he had been linked to the "Virginia Jihad", a case which led to the conviction of nine men who trained at a paintball camp for battles in Kashmir.

Ben Kahla had never been to Kashmir and the judge found no evidence that he had been to Afghanistan.

After the not-guilty verdict, he was brought twice before a grand jury where the US attorney who had prosecuted him asked the same questions he had been asked at his trial.

Ben Kahla is asking for the case to be dropped.

"This is not the America I know. Maybe this is what Jewish people felt with the Nazis and people in Russia experienced under Stalin," he said.

Extremist label

The Council on American-Islamic Relations has seen a steady rise in civil rights abuse cases since 11 September.

It received 1,522 reports of abuse in 2004, and the number of unreported cases is likely to be far higher.

I'm getting tired of my government throwing new scarecrows every day
US citizen

Jameel Jaffer, litigation director for the American Civil Liberties Union, believes the Patriot Act has a chilling effect on the Arab and Muslim community, which is afraid to voice opinions in case it is labelled as extremist.

At a mosque in the New York suburb of Jamaica, Queens, where the Commissioner of the New York Police Department, Raymond Kelly, has been invited to address the community, American convert Adem Carroll raises concern about the police informers in their midst.

In February, Shahawar Matin Siraj, a 24-year-old Pakistani man, was convicted of a plot to blow up Herald Square subway station in Manhattan on the evidence of a paid informer.

Matin's defence lawyer, Khurrum Wahed, describes him as an impressionable young man of limited intelligence and says it was a clear case of entrapment.

Police Commissioner Raymond dismisses this as a common defence ploy, reminding his audience that a jury sat for four weeks and found Matin guilty.


US Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner criticises law enforcement agencies for prosecuting "soft" targets.

"If you look at terrorist prosecutions by government, most do not involve national security," he said.

"Some that do involve people who were caught and prosecuted possibly because they were incompetent and talked a lot and were not necessarily serious threats."

As a criminal investigations agency, he believes the FBI is ill-equipped to search out and penetrate terrorist cells.

Now some ordinary Americans are joining the protest against an over-zealous use of the law.

Last week, 100 citizens entered the Federal Courthouse in Harrisonburg, Virginia, to hear a judge sentence Rasheed Qambari and two other Iraqi Kurds who had been convicted under the Patriot Act.


Their crime was to transfer money without a licence to help relatives and neighbours back home.

President Bush signs
The Bush administration sees the Patriot Act as a tool against terror

After a two-year investigation by five federal and six state agencies, US Attorney John Brownlee agreed there was no evidence of a link to terrorism but said this was an illegal banking system which could be exploited by terrorists.

The men were fined and put on probation. Outside the court, a supporter said he disagreed with many aspects of the Patriot Act.

"I'm getting tired of my government throwing new scarecrows every day," he said.

"Many things are being done such as monitoring phone calls and bank accounts that curtail my freedom."

In a climate of fear and heightened rhetoric about the war on terror, Muslim Americans fear there will be miscarriages of justice.

David Rivkin, former legal advisor to the White House, thinks there are sufficient checks and balances in the system.

"We unfortunately have a tremendous uptake in terrorism," he said.

"Not acknowledging the challenges we face as a democracy in dealing with the threat would be utterly irresponsible."

File on 4: BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 4 July at 2000 BST, and repeated on Sunday 9 July at 1700 BST. Or listen online - see links on the right hand side of this page.

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