Imprisoning people without just cause is sheer tyranny

Editorial

Abdel-Jabbar Hamdan of Buena Park, Calif., said his arrest and detention for two years in federal custody came from the “paranoia” of an overzealous government in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

We’re not qualified to make psychiatric diagnoses, but his detention at Terminal Island in San Pedro, Calif., for two years certainly seems unjustified. It was right that U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter finally ordered him released.

Hamdan does not deny he was a fund-raiser for the Holy Land Foundation, a Texas-based Muslim charitable organization that the U.S. government says is a front for Hamas, the Palestinian organization the State Department has classified as terrorist but which recently won elections in the Palestinian territories. The U.S. government shut down the Holy Land Foundation’s U.S. operations in 2001, but Hamdan says all his work was strictly charitable in nature, not related to supporting terrorism.

That claim might be disingenuous. Money is fungible; money contributed to an organization for one purpose can be diverted to other purposes. But the U.S. government did not document any claim that Hamdan was knowingly supporting a terrorist group.

He was not arrested for or charged with supporting terrorism, but on charges he overstayed a student visa he got 27 years ago to attend the University of Southern California. He had appealed deportation and would ordinarily have been released while the appeal was heard. But the government claimed he was a national security threat.

Shakeel Syed, executive director, Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, sees it this way: “It looks to us as if the government is making examples of people who speak out or are prominent in the community. Otherwise, this was a simple immigration violation case.”

Assuming Hamdan did overstay his 27-year-old visa, he had not been in trouble with the law (before this), according to one of his attorneys, and there was an amnesty in 1986. The attorney believes it unlikely the government will be successful in deporting him to Jordan.

If the government was going to make a claim about national security, it should have at the very least filed charges that backed up the accusation. Keeping people in prison because the government says they’re a national security threat is the way of tyrannies, not of constitutional republics governed by the rule of law.

The fact that the judiciary finally recognized this injustice is encouraging, but the fact that Hamdan could be imprisoned for two years on such frivolous grounds suggests that American traditions of fair play and due process are shakier than we might have hoped.