Thursday, April 1, 2010

Travelers with Muslim names find themselves fighting for U.S. visas

Washington Post

By Edward Cody

LYON, FRANCE -- The clean-cut young Frenchman seemed to have everything going for him. A graduate of an elite French engineering school, he had interned at the upper-crust Rothschild bank in Paris, handled wealth management for a while on Wall Street and was accepted for a prestigious master's degree program at the University of California at Berkeley.

Except for one thing: His name was Mohamed Youcef Mami.

The State Department held up his student visa for more than two months for "administrative processing," which according to diplomats is the euphemism-of-art for a check against multiple watch lists maintained by intelligence agencies in Washington designed to prevent suspected terrorists from entering the United States.

Since President Obama scolded the agencies for overlooking warning flags against Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian charged with trying to blow up an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight on Christmas Day, the checks have been reinforced and the lists have grown. With that comes a higher likelihood of "administrative processing" for visa applicants whose names may resemble those of terrorist suspects but who are "guilty" of nothing more than having Muslim parents.

While the computers whirred and security bureaucrats scrutinized their lists, Mami's nonrefundable flight from Lyon to San Francisco departed March 18 without him, and nobody would tell him why. As a result of the delay, he missed orientation and the first week of his financial engineering courses at Berkeley. After dozens of increasingly desperate telephone calls, e-mails and letters, Mami, 27, had concluded that he was being discriminated against because of his name and that Obama's speech in Cairo calling for friendship with the Muslim world was hollow PR.

The waiting ended Wednesday, and Mami's world was suddenly not the same. Two days after The Washington Post inquired about Mami's case, the U.S. Embassy in Paris called and told him the visa was on the way. His ordeal over, Mami pounced on the Internet to look for a cheap flight to San Francisco, vowing to be in class in Berkeley by Monday morning.

"It is a happy ending, just like in Hollywood," he said after hearing the news. "I'm not going to bear a grudge. I'm sure I'll have so much to do to get my master's at Berkeley that I'll soon forget this visa problem."

Not all cases end so happily. Said Mahrane, a French national born in Algeria and brought up in France, applied for a journalist's visa to accompany President Nicolas Sarkozy to Washington this week as a correspondent for the weekly newsmagazine Le Point. His colleagues from other publications -- with traditional French names -- got their visas in a couple of days. But Mahrane's never came through.

When the departure date approached, he said, Sarkozy's foreign policy adviser, Jean-David Levitte, called the U.S. Embassy to point out that Mahrane was a well-known Paris journalist with Sarkozy as his beat. But still there was no visa and no explanation. Sarkozy and his press entourage took off on schedule, but Mahrane had to stay behind.

"I never got an answer," he said, "much less a visa."

A U.S. Embassy spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity, said he could not comment on individual cases but added that sometimes a name goes into the security check system and gets a hit because, as is frequently the case with Muslims, it is a common name. "This does not necessarily mean that this is the person who is really in the database," he said.

For Mami, the waiting began Jan. 28, when he went to Paris for a standard visa interview by a consular officer. After routine questions, the officer told him he would have to wait two or three weeks for "administrative processing," Mami recalled. When he asked what that meant, he said, the officer told him he was not authorized to discuss it.

Mami said at first he reasoned that the delay would not be a problem because orientation classes at Berkeley were to begin March 22. But when the visa had still not arrived by Feb. 15, he sent a registered letter to the embassy inquiring about the delay. The next day, a woman called and said such delays were common and could last weeks or even months, he said.

That was the beginning of more than a month of telephone calls, e-mails and letters. The graduate school at Berkeley wrote a letter to the consulate urging that the visa be granted, but still no word came. Increasingly desperate, Mami struck out in every direction. Last Thursday, he wrote letters to Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Lyon Mayor GĂ©rard Collomb and Clinton's representatives for scientific exchanges with the Muslim world.

To all, he described his situation and begged for their intervention, but he got no immediate reply. Feinstein's office in San Francisco, which Mami also contacted by phone and e-mail, promised to make inquiries and let him know the outcome. But Mami did not hear back. The next day he e-mailed The Post bureau in Paris.

Staff writer Peter Finn in Washington contributed to this report.

CIA given details of British Muslim students


Outrage as personal files of undergraduates at Detroit bomb suspect's college handed to US

By Syma Mohammed and Robert Verkaik

Personal information concerning the private lives of almost 1,000 British Muslim university students is to be shared with US intelligence agencies in the wake of the Detroit bomb scare.

The disclosure has outraged Muslim groups and students who are not involved in extremism but have been targeted by police and now fear that their names will appear on international terrorist watch lists. So far, the homes of more than 50 of the students have been visited by police officers, but nobody has been arrested. The case has raised concerns about how the police use the data of innocent people and calls into question the heavy-handed treatment of Muslim students by UK security agencies.

This week, MPs criticised the Government's key policies on countering extremism which they said were alienating Muslim communities.

Last year, The Independent reported on the alleged harassment of young Muslims by the police and security service, MI5, whose officers had tried to recruit them as spies. In the latest case, details of students from University College London (UCL) were handed over to police by the university's student union, after detectives visited the campus in early January 2010 during their continuing investigation into the attempted Christmas Day bombing in Detroit by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Abdulmutallab studied engineering at UCL in 2005-08, and was president of the UCL Islamic Society in 2006-07.

Police had first approached UCL's Islamic Society, which refused to hand over the information. Mojeed Adams-Mogaji, the society's president, said: "I was concerned about what they would do with the data. At another meeting with the Metropolitan Police, they told us they would keep it for seven years and would share the data with other intelligence agencies if requested. Obviously, I'm very concerned with what they plan to do with this information."

Gareth Peirce, the prominent human rights lawyer, advised the Islamic Society during the affair. Last night she described the police's actions as "completely inappropriate".

She said: "You wonder if he [Abdulmutallab] had been a member of a society without the name Islamic on it, then would there have been such an appetite to grab the information. It adds to the fear that the Muslim community is a suspect community. The whole concept of data protection was meant to nail down absolute privacy and here it is being breached without a legal reason being imposed on the university to comply."

Eric Metcalfe, at the Justice student human rights network, said he believed it was another example of "heavy-handed" policing aimed at countering radicalism rather than investigating alleged crime. "There is no reason why the police can't go to court and persuade a magistrate to issue a warrant with which the university would have to comply," he said. "But this seems more about heavy-handed intelligence gathering, which may not have respected the privacy rights of the students."

Zubair Idris, 21, a second-year international medical student at UCL, said: "I feel frustrated and outraged. To pass on 900 student details because they were members of UCL Islamic Society is ridiculous. The reason I joined the society was for socio-cultural reasons. I've never seen the guy [Abdulmutallab]. I wasn't here when he was at university. "

Sayyida Mehrali, 19, a first-year neuroscience student, added: "I feel that it is a bit extreme that my information has been passed onto the Metropolitan Police as I joined UCL after Umar Farouk had left. There was never any opportunity to meet this individual and I think it's shocking that they have my details on a database."

From 2005 to 2007, Muslim students at Dundee University were harassed by Tayside Police's Special Branch community contact unit, who targeted "ethnic religious groups" in order to gather intelligence on activities that "could be considered extremist."

The university's Student Advisory Service allowed the police to attend the Freshers Fair to speak to students, but there was an outcry after branch officers posed as community officers and spoke to students covertly. They also approached students on campus, attended university meetings and events and visited students at their homes. They repeatedly harassed members of the Dundee University Islamic Society, and during the Israel-Lebanon war in 2006, visited Muslim students at their flats late at night.

The police initially approached the UCL Islamic Society on 4 January 2010 for a list of names of their members between 2005 and 2008. Following legal advice, the society declined to give the information. The police then approached the student union with a personal data request. The union provided names and email addresses of members of the UCL Islamic Society and Royal Free and UCL Medical Islamic Society between September 2005 and June 2009. The police then approached the university for telephone numbers and home addresses. These were passed on by the UCL Registry.

There are further concerns about the role of the student union in the disclosure of the data. Mr Adams-Mogaji said: "We also realised that the student union gave the details of the UCL Medical Islamic Society without being requested for it. The union is supposed to protect the societies under it and not hastily succumb to pressure without the need to. We're clearly not safe with the union and our trust in them is undoubtedly diminishing."

Qasim Rafiq, a former president of the UCL Islamic Society and spokesman for the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS), said: "Giving unnecessary personal data to the police seems to demonstrate a lack of regard for the personal data of its members. For me, it goes against the principles of the union to act in a flagrant manner towards its constituents. We had to demand the student union to email the students whose details were given to the police, and had we not had done so students who have been contacted by the police wouldn't have been aware that their details had been passed on."

In a statement, the Metropolitan Police said: "As part of enquiries police spoke to a number of people who may have been able to provide information relating to the background of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. This has included liaison with UCL, the student union, the Islamic Society and the FOSIS.

"Inquires made at UCL - where Abdulmutallab studied between 2005 and 2008 - are just one strand of the investigation. We have been careful to ensure that all inquiries and information gathered is treated sensitively."

A spokesman from UCL's press office refused to comment on the matter. A spokeswoman from the student union said: "The police asked the student union to provide details of members of the UCL Islamic Society and the Royal Free and UCL Medical Islamic Society between 2005 and 2008. The union provided the names and email addresses of student members only."

East al-Quds only open to 'non-Palestinian' Christians

Press tv

Only non-Palestinian Christians will be allowed to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in East Jerusalem (al-Quds) on Saturday, when eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate "Saturday of Light."

Israeli security officials informed church officials that only international pilgrims would be allowed to access the Old City and the church located in the site.

Saturday of Light is held the day before Easter with Christians lining in the streets of the Old City and holding bunches of candles in anticipation of the miracle fire.

Worshipers in the church light their candles and spread the fire to waiting pilgrims who take the miracle fire back to their homes as a symbol of community, hope and renewal.

The Israeli restrictions are the latest in a wave of prohibitions targeting Christian Palestinian worshipers in the Easter season.

On Palm Sunday, West Bank Christians were prevented from taking part in the Triumphal Entry procession, which traces the path believed to have been taken by Jesus on his return to the holy city before his crucifixion.

West Bank Christians were initially granted Easter permits to access the area, but a closure announced a day before the week-long Jewish event of Passover shut down checkpoints for permit holders.

On Palm Sunday, hundreds of international activists, Muslim supporters and Christians in Bethlehem (al-Quds) marched toward the 300 checkpoint that Israeli officials had closed earlier in the day.

Israeli soldiers detained 10 protesters including Abbas Zaki, member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee.

It is unclear whether the restrictions would stand for Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Israel also imposed harsh access limitations on Palestinian Muslims during Ramadan last year.

UK: Horrific ordeal of girl, six, who was physically and sexually abused by 23 of her primary school classmates

Daily mail

By Daily Mail Reporter

The shocking case of a six-year-old girl who was physically and sexually abused by 23 of her classmates has emerged today.

The girl was stripped daily and routinely assaulted by pupils her own age in the grounds of the Welsh school.

But the school and local council said the children's young ages and lack of evidence meant little could be done.

A review has now been ordered into an inquiry two years ago which failed to remove any of the children involved in the abuse from school.

The Children's Commissioner for Wales Keith Towler said the inquiry into the case had been a 'shocking failure'.

A serious case review published two years after allegations of abuse first emerged accepted that sexually harmful behaviour had taken place.

But it said it had been difficult to establish exactly what happened.

The school and the local education authority, neither of which can be named, said the fact that the children had all been under the age of criminal responsibility meant little action could be taken.

The child's mother told how it took two years for education officials to investigate her daughter's torment.

She said she had been warned about what was happening by another mother whose daughter was also being abused.

CHILD'S MOTHER: 'I will never forget the look on her face.. the fear on her face. I said 'It is OK you can tell Mummy" and then it all started to come out. And she was telling me things that I think every mother dreads to hear from their daughter'

In an interview with the BBC, the child's mother described the moment her daughter began to tell her what had been going on.

'My daughter was just like any other little girl. I will never forget the look on her face.. the fear on her face. I said 'It is OK you can tell Mummy" and then it all started to come out.

'And she was telling me things that I think every mother dreads to hear from their daughter. It was horrendous what she'd gone through.'

The mother moved her daughter to a school in another area but it was not until she took legal action that the local authority carried out a serious case review.

She says her daughter is doing better but believes she will be traumatised for life.

Children's Commissioner for Wales Keith Towler said the inquiry into the case had been a 'shocking failure'

'My daughter was going through that every day. Every day she was being stripped, she was being physically and sexually abused every day and every day she cried out for help and nobody ever came. And I think you can't excuse that.

'How can you possibly say that is OK and nobody is answerable for that?'

The child's family say she was failed by the school and by the system which took so long for something to be done.

Children's Commissioner for Wales Keith Towler said teachers needed on-going training to better recognise such incidents and the serious case review system in Wales would be changed to help prevent similar failures in the future.

'This is a shocking failure and the bottom line is the family will never know what happened to their child,' said Mr Towler.

'We are going to review the serious case review process in Wales to make sure they are much more timely published, within a year of incidents happening, so that we get really clear for everybody involved, what happened, why it happened and what we need to do to put things right.'

The local authority concerned has said it was confident the case review had been a robust one and said the school had received excellent inspections before and after the case.

Directors of Social Services in Wales president Neelam Bhardwaja said: 'If there are these number of children involved, it begs the questions, "Where did that behaviour arise from? Why are these children behaving in this way, and are they from abusive situations themselves, which they need protecting from?" '

She said an examination of the serious case review process in Wales had been going on for the last three months and was due to be completed by June.

She said it would be looking at the overall process, not the investigation in to the six-year-old's case.

A Welsh Assembly Government spokesman said it took 'its roles and responsibilities around the safeguarding of children very seriously'.

Belgium moves towards public ban on burka and niqab


Propaganda War

Home affairs committee of Brussels federal parliament votes unanimously to ban partial or total covering of faces in public places

Belgium today moved to the forefront of a campaign to restrict the wearing of the Muslim veil by women when a key vote left it on track to become the first European country to ban the burka and niqab in public.

The home affairs committee of the Brussels federal parliament voted unanimously to ban the partial or total covering of faces in public places.

"I am proud that Belgium would be the first country in Europe which dares to legislate on this sensitive matter," the centre-right MP Denis Ducarme said.

Daniel Bacquelaine, the liberal MP who proposed the bill, said: "We cannot allow someone to claim the right to look at others without being seen.

"It is necessary that the law forbids the wearing of clothes that totally mask and enclose an individual. Wearing the burqa in public is not compatible with an open, liberal, tolerant society."

The Belgian move came as neighbouring France and the Netherlands continued to grapple with the idea of imposing similar restrictions.

The Canadian province of Quebec last week introduced parliamentary measures to proscribe facial covering in public service employment – a move that enjoyed overwhelming public support in Canada.

Support for the ban in Belgium transcended party lines, ranging from the Greens to the far right, and also resulted in a rare show of unity between the linguistically divided halves of the country.

The full support of the home affairs committee means parliament is likely to vote for the curbs in mid-April, with a ban in force by the summer.

Under the proposals a fine or punishment of up to seven days in prison would be imposed for wearing the full-body burqa or face-masking niqab. The bill, to be debated next month, states that anyone in a public place "with face covered or disguised in whole or in part to the extent that she cannot be identified" is liable to incur the penalties.

While today's vote paved the way for the first nationwide ban on the veil in Europe, local authorities in Belgium already have the power to ban the burqa and niqab in public places.

Of the 500,000 Muslims living in Belgium – with big populations in Brussels and Antwerp – very few women wear the full veil, and there has been little public debate about the need to ban it.

While Bacquelaine admitted there was little problem with full facial covering among Muslims in Belgium, he argued for a preemptive move, saying: "We have to act as of today to avoid [its] development."

Rather than being about the burqa and the niqab, the bigger debate in Belgium – as elsewhere in Europe – is about the less severe headscarf, with Muslim parents pressing for schools to allow their daughters to cover their heads and often opting to send them to private schools tolerant of the practice.

The Belgian move is similar to other campaigns in Europe.

Following a heavy regional elections trouncing last week, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France called for a burqa ban. "The all-body veil is contrary to the dignity of women," he said. "The answer is to ban it. The government will introduce a bill to ban it that conforms to the principles of our laws."

The headscarf is banned in schools in France.

In the Netherlands rightwinger Geert Wilders – riding high in the opinion polls prior to elections in June – is also campaigning for Muslim veil bans and has issued warnings about the "Islamification" of Dutch society.

Isabelle Praile, the vice-president of the Muslim Executive of Belgium, warned that a Belgian ban could be the thin end of the wedge.

"Today it's the full-face veil. Tomorrow the veil, the day after it will be Sikh turbans, and then perhaps it will be miniskirts," she told AFP.