Passport to Hell

Hasan Hasan met the War on Terror in Long Beach

Photo by Slobodan DimitrovAmong those who've been unfortunate enough to stumble into the path of Attorney General John Ashcroft's "deliberate campaign of arrest and detention to protect American lives," Hasan Hasan is probably one of the lucky ones.

Though he has spent more than three of the past six months behind bars, the 33-year-old Kuwaiti national is now free. His friends and his lawyers know where he is and where he has been. They know the bizarre and troubling circumstances of his arrests. They know which agencies interrogated him and what he was asked. They don't know his future—Hasan is still facing deportation—but, despite it all, he's far ahead of the unknown hundreds of other men of Middle Eastern descent who have been detained in the last year, whose identities and whereabouts the Bush administration has been fighting to hide from public knowledge. When this is what luck looks like, we're all in trouble.

Hasan's case is not as clear-cut as that of, say, the Muslim medical students guilty of stopping at the wrong Georgia coffee shop—trouble has had a way of following him in the past. But the depths of trouble into which he precipitously sank illustrate how dangerous even a couple of minor brushes with the law, neither resulting in convictions, can be for the holder of a Middle Eastern passport. Despite the gaps and the deafening official silence, Hasan's strange story provides a partial but still disturbing look at how the Joint Terrorism Task Forces operate, and at what we can expect from law enforcement working out of the public eye in an atmosphere of hysteria, prejudice and paranoia.

Tall and thin with a pockmarked face, high cheekbones and intense dark eyes, Hasan attributes his troubles to the fact that, as he puts it, "I talk too much. I am not afraid to speak my opinion." It was for this reason, he says, that he moved from Kuwait to Long Beach in August 1996 to study English. Hasan says he was active in reformist politics in Kuwait, and was jailed several times by the Kuwaiti monarchy for his vocal pro-democracy stance. "I decided to leave when things became too much," he said in an August interview while still wearing county blues at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic.

Within a year of his arrival, Hasan says he was questioned by the FBI about his political activities in Kuwait and about his travels in the Middle East. He soon enrolled in a master's degree program in mathematics at Cal State Long Beach and became almost compulsively active in campus and local affairs. He co-founded a chess club and a French-film society, helped out with the alumni association and numerous international student groups, even joined Long Beach's Jewish Community Center to work out at their gym and take part in their social events. He was politically active as well, attending rallies with the American Socialist Party and helping to found a campus coalition in support of Mumia Abu Jamal. Hasan first ran afoul of the authorities in March of last year, when he was accused of making threatening phone calls to Dr. Arthur Wayman, the head of his department. Hasan and Wayman had once been close but had a falling out after Wayman fired him from a teaching job. (Hasan wasn't carrying the credits required for the position.) When Wayman received threats on his voice mail that he believed were from Hasan, he called the police. Hasan was arrested, but Wayman quickly dropped all charges. "There are some people in the police department who think he's a real threat," Wayman says. "I don't. I think he's a nice guy." Wayman admits his opinion is far from universally shared on campus.

Hasan was awarded his degree in December and found a job teaching math courses at nearby Cerritos College. Before the end of January, though, he came to the attention of Cal State Long Beach campus police once again, when another professor there suspected him of sending her anonymous, sexually explicit e-mails. Cal State police spotted Hasan on campus and brought him in for questioning. Before they did, though, they radioed Long Beach police to check him for warrants and learned, according to a police report, "that INS wanted to talk with him." Detained for routine questioning about a stalking allegation, Hasan was interrogated by a Long Beach police detective assigned to a special intelligence task force, by an FBI agent and, over the phone, by the INS. He was released after about seven hours. FBI spokeswoman Laura Bosley confirmed that the agencies were cooperating under the auspices of the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

All went smoothly for Hasan until April 23. The semester was drawing to a close, and he was preparing his Cerritos class for the final exam when Dean Norman Fujimoto asked Hasan to come to his office after class. When he got to the office, Hasan says, Fujimoto "spent five minutes mumbling and sweating" before telling him he was fired. He was very apologetic, Hasan says, but would not give a reason for the dismissal. Hasan says he asked to be allowed to stay until the end of the term, to guide his class through their exams. He was refused and, he says, was asked to turn over his keys immediately. "When I opened the door to the office," Hasan says, "I saw two cops from Cerritos College waiting for me. They said, 'We need to walk you off campus,' like I'm a dangerous guy.'"

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