The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY), March 1, 2003


Renee K. Gadoua Staff writer; Staff writers Aaron Gifford and Jim Reilly contributed to this report.

Local Muslims say authorities harassed and intimidated them during the investigation of three Central New Yorkers accused of illegally sending money to Iraq. Up to 150 people reportedly were questioned Wednesday by law enforcement officials.

"That number visited by federal agencies is unprecedented in my experience," Imam Ahmed Nezar Kobeisy said Friday. "The way they came in was very intrusive." Kobeisy, spiritual leader of the Islamic Society of Central New York, said he is trying to track the number of people questioned, but they are unlikely to be willing to sign a list.

About a dozen people described being questioned, but would not allow their names to be published. They said they feared speaking out would jeopardize their citizenship or student visa status. Some said they feared an anti-Islamic backlash.

Those questioned by authorities Wednesday were both native-born Americans and immigrants. They included a student, a professor and a man who identified himself as a Quaker who lives in Cayuga County. Some said they had donated to Help the Needy, others said they had not.

They said state police or federal agents asked them about their citizenship status, whether they were born Muslim or converted and how they pray.

"These are inappropriate questions," Kobeisy said. Some people also objected to being asked if they knew if their money was going to Iraq.

Joseph Pavone, first assistant U.S. attorney, would not comment on the number of people questioned. "Our policy is not to confirm or deny if people are interviewed," he said.

"These are normal actions in the course of any investigation," he said of Wednesday's interviews. He said he is unaware if officials were given any special instructions on how to address cultural and religious aspects of Muslims. "Law enforcement is always sensitive to religious differences," he said. "I cannot imagine anyone in law enforcement would try to communicate with anyone who had difficulty understanding them.

"The Muslim community has nothing to fear from law enforcement," he said. "They have nothing to fear as long as they tell the truth."

Pavone said people have no obligation to talk to police officers except in a grand jury investigation. He would not describe the nature of Wednesday's interviews. He advised people concerned about how they were treated to contact his office or seek advice from a lawyer or clergy member.

He said he has heard no allegations of harassment or intimi- dation. Nor has he heard any reports of racial or religious bias from this case. In the wake of the arrests, representatives of the InterReligious Council of Central New York and Syracuse University are seeking ways to show support for the Muslim community and ensure that innocent people are not mistreated.

About 50 people, including Syracuse University students; officials representing the university's Hendricks chapel, campus safety and international student affairs; and representatives of numerous faith traditions, met with Islamic Society members Friday at the mosque.

"My perception is regardless of the outcome of these arrests, the whole community is being painted with one brush and presumed guilty," the Rev. Thomas Wolfe, dean of SU's Hendricks Chapel said at the meeting.

Participants plan several ways to try to show support. They include:
Encouraging people to learn the details of the Patriot Act and the proposed Patriot Act II.
Reporting all bias-related incidents in the SU community to university officials.
Meeting with legal officials to discuss ethnic and religious diversity.
Meeting with the media to discuss stereotyping.
Meeting with a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union to determine if witnesses' rights were violated during questioning.
Educating Muslims, especially students, about their civil rights.

Supporters also expressed concern about two Muslims being held in the Madison County jail on charges they have violated immigration law.

Capt. Richard Phillips, head of the jail, confirmed that Yehia Fakhr and Taher Nasser were brought in by U.S. marshals Wednesday "on an immigration-related matter." Phillips said he was not told the specific charges, and he did not have either man's age or address.

Sources said a memo was circulated to jail officials telling them the two men were high-profile inmates, and not to talk about them. Phillips said he does not know if the cases are related to the Help the Needy investigation.

"We've been told it's not connected at all," said Joe Della Posta, speaking for LeMoyne College. Fakhr is a graduate student in the MBA program there. It is unclear whether Nasser is a college student.

Della Posta said INS officials contacted LeMoyne earlier this week asking about Fakhr, who is from Egypt.

Pavone said he did not know of any immigration violations related to the Help the Needy case.

Kobeisy said many people have contacted the mosque to offer support since Wednesday's arrests. "People are concerned about the Muslim community," he said. "People care about the Muslim community."

He thanked participants in Friday's meeting - including representatives from Buddhist, Jewish, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian and Quaker traditions - for asking how they could help.

"I thank you for the support in the good and the bad," he said.

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