NATION CHALLENGED: THE DETAINEES;
Cleared After Terror Sweep, Trying to Get His Life Back
Taken from an article in The New York Times.
By TAMAR LEWIN (NYT)
Published: December 28, 2001
LaBELLE, Fla., Dec. 21
After 67 days in a Texas jail, Nacer Fathi Mustafa says he is trying to get back to normal life in this tiny town in the Florida orange groves. At the same time, he cannot stop thinking about why he and his 66-year-old father -- American citizens of Palestinian descent -- were arrested on Sept. 15 at the Houston airport on their way home from a business trip to Mexico and charged with altering their passports.
He worries whether his neighbors, deep down, think he is a terrorist, even though all the accusations against him were dismissed on Nov. 20. The government found that there was no evidence of alteration of the passports and that the laminate had probably just split or torn.
Mr. Mustafa, 29, and his father, Fathi, recently filed claims in federal court in Houston seeking reimbursement of more than $40,000 that they had spent on legal fees. Under the Hyde Amendment, if the federal government files criminal charges that are ''vexatious, frivolous or in bad faith,'' those unjustly charged, and acquitted, can recover reasonable attorneys' fees.
''The Mustafas are not wealthy people,'' their lawyer, Dan Gerson, said. ''They've paid me a lot. They still owe me $15,000, and while they don't want to file a lawsuit against the government, they should get reimbursement for the legal fees. This whole thing was just panic over Sept. 11.''
The United States attorney's office in Houston said that it would respond to the reimbursement motion on Jan. 7 and that until then it would not comment on the case.
For the Mustafas, father and son, the arrest has had emotional consequences, as well as financial ones.
''I am not the same person I used to be,'' said the son, who runs a truck stop. ''I watch the news all the time, looking to see if there are more people like me, locked up after Sept. 11 because they have a Middle Eastern name. I don't watch movies any more. It's CNN, all the time.
''And I am more careful. I used to speed sometimes. But now every time I press on the gas, I think about the law. Every time I see someone I know, I have to explain. The U.P.S. man, I showed him my dismissal papers, and he said how could this happen. I keep my papers to show, in case anyone doesn't think I am innocent.''
The legal papers, stored carefully near the cash register, start on Sept. 17, with a declaration that Mr. Mustafa's passport had ''obviously been altered with the introduction of an additional clear sheet on top of the genuine laminate,'' a change associated with terrorism or smuggling drugs or immigrants. They end with the dismissal of the charges.
The law enforcement reaction to the terror attacks was swift. By late October, more than 1,000 people, most of them Middle Eastern, had been detained on immigration charges, criminal charges or as material witnesses, and the government provided little information on whom it was holding.
But over the last month, a number of detainees have been released or deported. As of Dec. 19, when the Justice Department last released statistics, 460 people were detained on immigration charges, down from 548 three weeks earlier. But the number charged with federal, state or local crimes has risen slightly, to 116 from 93 last month. The government has still not released the names of all those in custody.
These are some cases that have received media attention and have been resolved:
*Salam el-Zaatari, 21, a Lebanese art student detained in Pittsburgh for six weeks when an X-acto knife was found in his backpack as he tried to board a plane, is back in Beirut.
*Ghassan Dahduli, a computer technician who was arrested on Sept. 22 at home in Richardson, Tex., and kept in jail for two months, was deported on Nov. 26 to Jordan, where he was held for more than a week for further questioning. He lived in the United States for 23 years and was a leader of the Islamic Association for Palestine, a group based in Illinois that Israel and some American officials have called a front for Hamas, the terrorist group.
*Dozens of young Israelis, visiting the United States on tourist visas and detained in the fall for being illegally employed selling toy helicopters and puzzles in shopping malls, returned voluntarily to Israel.
Mr. Mustafa's case is unusual. Although he is of Palestinian heritage, he is an American citizen, born in Puerto Rico. His father, who was detained for 11 days and released on bond with an electronic ankle monitor, is a naturalized citizen who has lived in the United States for 40 years. The monitor has since been removed.
But Fathi Mustafa, who runs the LaBelle Department store, selling clothes and boots for the Mexican migrant workers who pick the citrus crop, still becomes shaky and tearful when asked to talk about the arrest, his son said. Nacer Mustafa said his wife, Shabreen, was nervous, too, and did not want a reporter to visit their home.
''The good thing,'' Mr. Mustafa said about his two daughters, 5 and 9 months, ''is that the girls, even the little one, remembered me right away when I came home. I worried about that a lot.''
But the bad things have not gone away.
''The first few days I would be asleep and I'd wake up but be afraid to open my eyes to see if it's a dream that I'm home,'' said Mr. Mustafa, who speaks fluent Spanish, as well as Arabic, from the time he has spent in Jerusalem. Mr. Mustafa met and married his wife, also Palestinian, in Jerusalem.
''I was engaged to my wife for a year before we got married, and I would always tell her how I'm very proud of how good the United States is, how almost perfect we are, that everybody is equal, that you don't need connections the way you do in most other countries,'' he said. ''Now I tell her I was only in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don't want her to take this as an example of our whole life in this country. But I do believe it's changed her feelings.''
Mr. Mustafa is haunted, too, by the fear that others in this town of 4,210 have changed feelings, that they no longer trust him. The Mustafas and their extended family make up half the eight or nine Middle Eastern families in LaBelle.
''Most people said nice things when I came back,'' he said. ''But there were also people who didn't say anything. When I was in jail, it went on so long, I worried that I would never get back here, never see my family again. What bothered me most was at the end, they just said I could go. Nobody ever apologized.''