When Basman Elashi reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Dallas, Texas on 9 July, he expected nothing unusual. He had visited the federal agency regularly since his release from its custody in March 2009.
“At first I was only reporting every six months,” he said over tea in his family’s Gaza home. “Then they reduced it to three months. Then, the last time, they asked me to report the following month.”
“They held me for three hours,” he said of his final visit. “I asked them why they were holding me so long. As it turns out, they were waiting for [my brother] Bayan to come in the afternoon. Then five people surrounded me, told me they were deporting me, and handcuffed me. I didn’t see Bayan until we were in the van.”
Unlike his brother, Bayan Elashi had been forced to wear a monitoring anklet and report every week after his April 2009 release. “When I reported to them on Monday, 9 July, as I always do, they arrested me and said that I would be leaving the country within 24 to 48 hours,” he said.
“At the detention center, they said we had two hours to call our families to bring us anything we needed for our deportations,” Basman said. “This was the only window we had to call or see them.”
The brothers’ ordeal began much earlier, when the US government arrested them on 18 December 2002. “The [US] government actually indicted us on three counts: a sealed one; the second one, based on which they arrested us; and a third one after it was finalized,” Bayan recalled.
The government’s charges against the brothers stemmed from their family and its business, the Infocom Corporation. “Bayan has a master’s degree in computer engineering from Purdue University and worked on his PhD degree, but never finished it,” Ghassan Elashi, a third brother and the imprisoned chairperson of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, recounted from federal prison in Marion, Illinois.
“In the early 1980s, he was behind the development of the first Arabic computer,” he said. “From then until his arrest in 2002, him, me, and my other brothers ran a computer and Internet services company that was focused on building personal computers and providing web hosting. Most of our business was directed towards exporting to the Arab world.”
“Guilt by association”
It was those dealings that would draw the government’s attention. “The United States government used the concept of guilt by association,” Bayan said. “There were some financial transactions between me and [Hamas political bureau deputy chairman] Mousa Abu Marzouk’s wife, who happened to be my cousin. The government didn’t like this, and indicted us mainly because of this relationship.” The “core issues,” he added, related to the Holy Land Foundation and also Abu Marzouk.
Abu Marzouk’s status as a “specially designated terrorist” allows the US government to criminalize his business transactions, personal property and even family relationships, without ever charging him with a crime or putting him on trial. It detained Abu Marzouk for 22 months after his designation, before releasing him without charges and deporting him to Jordan in 1997.
The Holy Land Foundation, once the largest Islamic charity in the United States, was shut down with an executive order from the Bush administration in December 2001. Ghassan Elashi and four other men associated with the foundation were arrested and, as The Electronic Intifada reported earlier this year, were “subjected to two extraordinary trials that, amongst other court precedents, relied on testimony from an anonymous Israeli intelligence agent. The men were accused of providing material support to Hamas, a Palestinian political party declared a terrorist organization by the US State Department, by funding Islamic charitable committees in Palestine through the Holy Land Foundation.”
Though they were not accused of committing or financing any violent acts, the five are serving out decades-long prison sentences for supporting charities that the State Department agency USAID continued to fund long after the Holy Land Foundation men were indicted. The Holy Land Foundation case is part of a pattern of the US government criminalizing Palestine advocacy and charity work while it funds the Israeli occupation and sheilds the state from accountability.
Two years of solitary confinement
For their part, the Bayan and Basman Elashi experienced two years of solitary confinement between their arrests and their 2004 trial. “I was only allowed to receive visits from my immediate family visits from my wife, my children and my mother, not my brothers or my friends,” Bayan said.
The brothers were convicted in October 2006, “of basically violating a presidential executive order, which prevents US subjects from dealing with the property of designated terrorists,” Bayan said. They received sentences of 84 months each, and were released from prison in January 2009. At that point, the government sought to deport them.
But there was a catch: no country was prepared to receive them. The brothers were not only stateless, like most Palestinians, but since they had left the Gaza Strip before its 1967 conquest by Israel, the Israeli-controlled population registry denied them residency rights there as well.
“My documents had expired in 2002,” Basman said. “I contacted the Egyptian consulate in Washington, DC to renew them, but they refused. Then I tried to get a Palestinian passport, but the Palestinian Authority’s delegation in DC said I didn’t qualify to have them because I didn’t live in the occupied territories and according to the Oslo agreement, I was not supposed to have Palestinian documents. I asked them to put this in writing. They asked me to fill out an application for a document and promised they would send me a letter of denial.”
The Bureau of Prisons turned the brothers over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement while the latter scrambled to figure out what to do with them. Eventually, it released each from its detention centers to their families in Dallas: Basman in March 2009, and Bayan in April 2010.
Shock of deportation
Then came their deportations. “Since everyone knew who they were, everyone was shocked,” Nida Abu-Baker, a Palestinian-American art student in Dallas and daughter of imprisoned Holy Land Foundation co-founder Shukri Abu-Baker, said of the news.
“I was very surprised,” she added. “My whole family was. My oldest sister just saw Uncle Basman just a day or two before he got deported. They shouldn’t have had been deported because the judge agreed on them being allowed to stay here, and plus they had finished serving time in prison. It was sad.”
“I was deported using an expired travel document from Dallas, to JFK [airport] in New York, to Cairo, accompanied by four agents,” Basman said. “At the airport, we were received by two men from the US consulate. One was an American; the other looked like an Egyptian. They talked privately, with us on the side. Then we were taken to the police station at the airport.
“We were called in separately to talk to an Egyptian agent who asked us questions: what the indictment was for; what the charges were; how long we were in the US. Then they asked me about my Palestinian documents and if I had a hawiyye [Israel-issued Palestinian residency permit]. My answer was that my passport had expired and I didn’t have a hawiyye. The last time I had been in Gaza was before the 1967 war.”
“The actions of DHS and ICE are alarming, troubling and intolerable,” American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) Legal Director Abed Ayoub said of the deportations in a statement. “ADC has demanded, and will continue to demand, a clear explanation as to why these brothers were deported. The US government is very well aware of the deplorable living conditions in Gaza resulting from an illegal blockade.”
“The most important thing we need people to know is that the US government has a certain view of Middle East policy,” Bayan said. “If anybody has an opinion opposing this policy, the government will use its legal system against them. The courts will yield to the government’s wishes and overlook, and even violate, all the legal and constitutional rights of the individual. They’ll hand him a harsh sentence just to please the government, knowing, without a doubt, that he didn’t violate US law.”
“Especially if that person is a Muslim or an Arab or a Palestinian or from Gaza,” he added.
Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza, Palestine. He works with the Centre for Political and Development Studies (CPDS) and other Palestinian groups and international solidarity networks, particularly in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions and prisoners’ movements. He blogs at joecatron.wordpress.com and tweets at @jncatron.