Rosser Guest Op-Ed: Innocent Kurdish-Americans Victimized by Patriot Act
A Travesty of Justice: Oppressing the Kurds of Harrisonburg, Virginia
J. Barkley Rosser, Jr.
On June 26, three Kurdish men in Harrisonburg, Virginia (Rasheed Qambari, Ahmed Abdullah, and Amir Rashid) will be sentenced for sending money to Iraqi Kurdistan without a license to their families and those of fellow members of their community via the traditional hawala system (a fourth man, Fadhil Noroly, will be tried on July 11). This is a felony offense under amendments to the Patriot Act introduced after 9/11.
No longer does the transfer have to be linked in any way to any illegal activity or terrorism, nor does the party doing the transferring have to know that what they are doing is illegal. Even the FBI and prosecuting attorneys agree that none of these transfers through the traditional halawa system had anything to do with terrorism or anything of the sort. Indeed, one prosecutor declared to Rasheed Qambari during his trial on January 31, “we know that you are not the bad guys.” What is going on here?
First of all observers should realize how completely absurd these cases are. Prior to 1996 these men, and most of the 70 Kurdish families now living in Harrisonburg in the Shenandoah Valley, were involved with aiding US and UK aid organizations. In that year Saddam Hussein attempted to have them arrested and killed (he succeeded with many who did not get out). The US government airlifted about 6500 of them out to Turkey as part of Operation Pacific Haven. After extensive security vetting in Guam, many were allowed to immigrate as refugees into the US, with this group ending up in Harrisonburg. These people were anti-Saddam and anti-terrorism, literally dancing in the streets at his overthrow.
Nevertheless, after 9/11, the FBI began visiting their homes, as well as those of other Muslims in the Harrisonburg community, asking them about links to terrorists and terror groups. During these interrogations these four men all told of their money transfer activities for the community to help out their families with medical and other problems. They were told that this was not a problem. No one told them that they needed to obtain federal licenses or that that they were doing anything illegal. Two of them never made any profits on their activities (Qambari in particular has translated for hospitals, schools, and even the courts for free). The two that made small profits obtained local business licenses and were under the impression that this was sufficient.
During the summer of 2006, about eight homes of Kurds in the area were raided in massive operations that involved as many as 12 different government agencies. Families were mistreated and belongings were seized, including things that did not belong to those raided (including $20,000 for the down payment on a house for someone not raided, an amount only recently returned). On October 19, 2005, the four men were indicted and were arrested in the early hours two days later. At their indictment a Croatian translator was provided, and Ahmed Abdullah spent a week in jail because he was afraid to answer any questions due to his inadequate English. On January 31, Qambari was convicted. This led to Abdullah and Rashid pleading guilty, while Noroly still holds out for a trial. They face possible sentences of up to five years and possible deportation. Qambari has stated that his life will be in danger if he returns. All four men had applied for US citizenship (they all are married with children born in the US), and Qambari had even passed the final exam with a perfect score, only awaiting his swearing in, when these events intervened.
There was almost no coverage of this in any media, only a brief, not-on-the front cover story in the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record (DNR) that repeated the prosecution’s argument that Qambari was threatening “the integrity of the US financial system” by his activities. Since then a movement has grown in the area, triggered initially by blogposts by this writer on Maxspeak (whose archives contain much material) and then appearing in various local media. The most thorough story on this appeared in the June issue of the local monthly, Eighty-One, by Jeremy Nafziger, which can be accessed here [pdf]. A front page story appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday, June 18, entitled, “Kurdish Defendants Find Support in Town’s Clasp,” by Karin Brulliard. After two op-ed pieces, several letters, and a petition signed by over 600 citizens, the very conservative DNR came out in an editorial on May 8 for “leniency in sentencing” of the men. Leading this local movement has been a group called Standing With Our Neighbors (SWON), which has been spearheaded by local religious groups, especially many Mennonites from Harrisonburg. The DNR editorial cited an op-ed by me, “If I am Deported back to Iraq, I will die” (titled “An Investigation Gone Sour” in the paper), which can be accessed at http://cob.jmu.edu/rosserjb.
What has led to this travesty? These cases arose out of a Joint Terrorism Task Force based in Roanoke involving many agencies. They searched and searched and found nothing, but needed to show somebody that they were doing good. So, they nailed these people who have done nothing wrong other than try to help their neighbors, ignorant of the law. Given the visits to the mosque by the FBI and the general situation, it is clear that this reflects a broader anti-Muslim character of these investigations and the associated lack of respect for human rights. One can appreciate that this statute might need to be used against actual terrorists if there is no other evidence that can be used against them in court (much as Al Capone was eventually convicted of income tax evasion). But no one says these men are terrorists. This is an anti-terror bureaucracy gone out of control. Prosecuting these men makes as much sense as when autoworkers in Detroit beat a Chinese man to death because they were upset at Japanese car imports. This is an unfair and disturbing prosecution that indicates how seriously in jeopardy our rights in America have become endangered by egregious enforcement of the Patriot Act. I only hope that the judge is indeed lenient with these very worthy men.
J. Barkley Rosser, Jr. Professor of Economics and Kirby L. Kramer, Jr. Professor of Business Administration James Madison University Editor, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization
Ed. note: See also This recent Washington Post article.