Passport to Hell
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.
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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.'"
Before they reached the edge of the campus, though, they ran into two Long Beach police officers. "They told me, 'Hasan, put your hands behind your back,' and they handcuffed me." The police would not, Hasan says, tell him why he had been arrested. They waited in a parking lot for about 45 minutes until two INS officers arrived. One of them, Hasan recalls, told him he was under arrest because he was in the United States illegally. He protested that he had a work visa that did not expire until December. "She said, 'You are not working now.'"
The immigration officers put him in the back of their car and told him the college needed a list of his student's grades. They drove to his house and, he says, refused his offers to find the grades for them. Instead, Hasan alleges, "they searched the place for almost two hours," questioning him all the while. They found a propane canister for a camp stove, he says, and asked, "What are these chemicals?" They found a money order made out to the Jewish Community Center in Long Beach and, he says, asked him how he could give money to Jews and still be the faculty adviser to Cerritos' Muslim student organization (a fact he had not volunteered). He was eventually taken to Long Beach police headquarters, where, he says, immigration officers convinced him to consent to giving them a DNA sample.
Hasan was transferred to downtown Los Angeles and was told the next day that he would be freed if he paid a $5,000 bond. Unable to pay, he spent the next two and a half weeks behind bars at a Lancaster jail leased from the county by the INS and was released only after his bond was reduced to $3,000.
Neither the INS nor the Long Beach Police Department were willing to comment on Hasan's arrest, though they confirmed that they do cooperate, and INS spokesman Francisco Arcaute said the immigration service only gets involved in such situations "if there is a specific request from another law-enforcement agency." Norman Fujimoto did not return calls requesting an interview, and a Cerritos College spokesman refused to comment on the case, calling it a personnel issue and citing confidentiality requirements. An offer from Hasan to waive his confidentiality rights did not change the college's position, and they were equally unwilling to comment on their general policies regarding their level of cooperation with immigration authorities.
During the short period before Hasan would again be incarcerated, he began to look for work and applied to Ph.D. programs. He traveled to a mathematics conference in Miami and delivered a paper titled "The Uniform Boundedness Principle on Banach Spaces"—"It is very theoretical stuff." When he returned, he says, his roommate, Edgar Lanchippa, told him the FBI had been by asking questions and had searched the apartment. Shortly thereafter, on May 29, he and Lanchippa quarreled, and Hasan left the apartment. Two days later, he changed the locks and moved Lanchippa's possessions onto the sidewalk. Finding them, Lanchippa called the police. He alleged that Hasan had threatened to "disappear" him and had told him he was "involved in terrorist activity" and was a member of a "Fatah group from Kuwait." (Fatah was the military wing of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.)
Hasan didn't return to the apartment until the morning of June 6. He had been up all night watching the World Cup games, he says, and went to bed immediately. He was woken after about two hours, "when suddenly the police walked into my apartment." Hasan was handcuffed in his bedroom. Long Beach police officers searched the apartment, he says, and questioned him at length. "Then two gentleman came with suits. I believe they were from the FBI. They didn't identify themselves." They asked him, he says, if he owned any flight manuals and if he had visited the Pentagon or the World Trade Center. They became very interested in the paintings on his walls, including one depicting tall buildings and a lightning storm. "They said, 'This looks like New York—does this mean attack from the air?' I said, 'I never thought of this interpretation before.'" They asked him, he says, if he hated America and the American government. He said no. They asked him if he disagreed with the government's policies. "I said, 'Some things I don't like. Other things they are doing good.'"
Hasan didn't learn why he had been arrested until a week had passed, when his lawyers visited him in county jail and showed him the report Lanchippa had made to police. He had been charged with making "criminal threats," a felony, and was facing five to 10 years in prison. At the end of his first week in jail, Hasan says, he was beaten and knocked unconscious by two inmates who, as they struck him, called him a terrorist.
On Aug. 30, the case against Hasan was dismissed for lack of evidence at a preliminary hearing, an occurrence that even Deputy District Attorney Marilyn Seymour admitted was uncommon. After spending nearly three months in jail, Hasan was released. His attorney, James DeMaegt, called his arrest "absurd." "They don't ask people about the World Trade Center when you have a dispute with your roommate. It is completely and totally because he is a Middle Easterner," he alleged. "Even more bizarre is that the DA sought a warrant and prosecuted as a felony on that basis." DeMaegt promised that civil suits for conspiracy to violate civil rights would be filed against all the agencies involved, as well as against Cerritos College.
In the meantime, Hasan has found another job, tutoring at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Last week, he was relieved to learn that his INS hearing has been put off until late January. Guillermo Suarez, his immigration lawyer, says that under normal circumstances, Hasan's would be an easy case to win, but "in terms of the general atmosphere of hysteria about young Arab men, I think it's going to be a tough case." Though Hasan says he may be killed if forced to return to Kuwait, he is not discouraged. "I am always optimistic. Everything happens for a reason."
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