News & Views » Columns

Why we're suing John Ashcroft

A journalism axiom cautions us to report the news, not make the news. It’s a worthy maxim. Be an independent observer, not a participant.

But it’s also finite principle, and its limits have been obliterated in the case of Ann Arbor resident Rabih Haddad, whose immigration hearings have been arbitrarily and, I believe, unconstitutionally closed to the public and the press.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service is attempting to deport Haddad. So Metro Times is suing U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and two immigration judges in an attempt to learn what the government is doing with Haddad, and why it is doing it.

This publication has joined U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) and the Detroit News in an attempt to force federal Immigration Judge Elizabeth Hacker to convene a hearing and determine whether the government has cause to bar Haddad’s family, the public and the press from what are normally public proceedings. The American Civil Liberties Union is filing the case on behalf of the plaintiffs. The Detroit Free Press was said to be poised to file a lawsuit as well.

INS agents took Haddad, 41, into custody at his residence on Dec. 14, accusing him of overstaying his tourist visa. The arrest occurred during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in front of Haddad’s wife and four children. Haddad, a citizen of Lebanon, served as an assistant imam at the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor and has been in the United States off and on for 20 years. He is also a founder and board member of the Global Relief Foundation, an Illinois-based charity which federal officials suspect of funding terrorist organizations. The feds have provided no proof that this is so.

In secret proceedings, Haddad has twice been denied bond. He was held in solitary confinement in the Monroe County Jail until Jan. 11, when he was removed, en route for a jail in Chicago, where he has again been in solitary.

Our lawsuit should not be viewed as an endorsement of Haddad or the Global Relief Foundation. We have no position on his immigration status or alleged involvement in a group suspected of terrorist ties — though people who know him well avow that he is a peace-loving and law-abiding man. (An application for permanent residency status, which he filed in April 2001, generally forestalls any deportation attempt.)

The truth is, we don’t know whether the government’s suspicions about Haddad are justified.

But we — and you — have a right to find out. And he has a right to a fair and open trial. That’s why we are demanding a hearing over the propriety of this Stassi impersonation. We are demanding that hearings in Haddad’s case — the next one is set for Feb. 19 — be opened to the public and press and that transcripts of past proceedings be made public.

Metro Times reporters Ann Mullen and Lisa M. Collins have attempted to attend hearings in Haddad’s case. So has Conyers, who is the ranking Democrat of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration laws. Like everyone else — including Haddad himself, who watched the proceedings on closed circuit TV from his jail cell — Mullen, Collins and Conyers and scores of others were denied entry.

Our complaint, drafted by Michael Steinberg, legal director of the Michigan chapter of the ACLU, asserts that the public and press have First Amendment rights and due process rights to attend Haddad’s hearings.

According to the complaint, Judge Hacker confirmed to Haddad’s attorney that her decision to close all proceedings was prompted by a Sept. 21 memo issued by Chief Immigration Judge David Creppy. Hacker further stated that Creppy’s memo removed her authority to hear arguments over the opening of proceedings. Creppy, Hacker and Ashcroft are listed as defendants in our lawsuit. The INS is a division of the Justice Department.

Creppy’s memo to his subordinate immigration judges states, in part: “[T]he Attorney General has implemented additional security procedures for certain cases in the Immigration Court. Those procedures require us to hold the hearings individually, to close the hearings to the public, and to avoid discussing the case or otherwise disclosing any information about the case to anyone outside the Immigration Court. …

“If any of these cases are filed in your court, you will be notified by [Creppy’s office] that special procedures are to be implemented. …

“Each of these cases is to be heard separately from all other cases. The courtroom must be closed for these cases — no visitors, no family and no press.”

No way.

Our lawsuit is the first in the nation to challenge the constitutionality of Creppy’s directive.

The Creppy memo is but one in a litany of chilling directives and initiatives emanating from the Bush administration, Ashcroft and his minions in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Military tribunals, wiretaps on demand, eavesdropping on attorney-client communications, blatant and wholesale suppression of public records — reams of data that do not belong to Ashcroft or Bush, but rather to the people.

Americans’ innate patriotism and fear over their security have provided convenient cover for Ashcroft to unleash a fusillade on the Constitution — a document that is supposed to separate us from lower orders of governance.

The centerpiece of the incipient assault is the USA Patriot Act, whose provisions also allowed the Treasury Department to freeze the assets of the Global Relief Foundation the same day Haddad was arrested.

Yet the government admits it doesn’t have enough evidence to add Global Relief to a list of 168 organizations directly linked to funding terrorism and insists that Haddad’s detention is not related to the case against Global Relief.

“The government has reasonable cause to believe they are funneling money to terrorists,” a U.S. Treasury spokeswoman told Metro Times.

I have reasonable cause to believe that my government is behaving like a banana republic, beyond reproach or accountability. I loathe it, and you should too.

To paraphrase a man the Bush team worships: Mr. Ashcroft, tear down this wall.

Open the courtroom. Let the public see what its government is doing in its name. Let us all judge for ourselves.

Until then, see you in court.

Jeremy Voas is editor of Metro Times. E-mail jvoas@metrotimes.com

comment