Terror unit mum on Intel arrest
- Ben Jacklet
- Portland Tribune - News
Arab-American's family, friends seek answers to unexplained two-week detention
The family and friends of an Arab-American man who has been held in federal prison without charges for two weeks are raising funds for his defense and demanding answers from the FBI and federal prosecutors.
But the case of Maher 'Mike' Hawash remains cloaked in secrecy. The court documents are sealed, none of the lawyers involved will comment, and the FBI won't say why he was arrested.
Members of Portland FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force arrested Hawash on the morning of March 20 in a parking lot outside Intel Corp. in Hillsboro. That morning, armed with search warrants, agents and police searched his office, his home and both of his family's cars, and presented his wife, Lisa, with a subpoena to testify before a grand jury.
Hawash, 38, a U.S. citizen for 15 years, has been detained as a material witness since his arrest. Under the 1984 material witness statute, the government is allowed to detain potential witnesses without charging them with a crime, in order to compel them to testify in a criminal proceeding. Civil libertarians worry that the government has used the statute disproportionately against Arab-Americans following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
According to his wife, Hawash is being held in solitary confinement at Sheridan Federal Prison and is allowed to call home once a week.
Beth Anne Steele, a spokeswoman for the Portland office of the FBI, said court rules forbid her from commenting on any aspect of the case. She would not confirm or deny whether Hawash is being held in solitary confinement. Nor would she discuss the FBI's use of the material witness statute to detain Hawash or what, if any, crime he was suspected of knowing about.
Friends and colleagues say they are infuriated with the FBI's treatment of Hawash, who is of Palestinian origin.
'Someone we know has been grabbed by the government and put in prison, and it's all secret and there's nothing we can do,' said Steven McGeady, a former Intel vice president who is leading a campaign to free Hawash.
'We don't know if they think he's done something, or if they think he knows someone who did something,' McGeady said. 'There certainly have been situations like this where it all proved to be a big mistake.'
McGeady has set up a Web site for Hawash at www.freemikehawash.org. He also has contacted Oregon's congressional delegation to criticize the arrest.
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden has written a letter to Oregon's U.S. attorney, Michael Mosman, requesting more information about Hawash's arrest.
'He's not a flight risk,' McGeady said. 'He's not a guy who got on a plane with a bomb in his shoe. He is an Arab-American with a job and a family.'
Intel spokesman Bill MacKenzie said Hawash is one of about 1,000 contract employees who work for Intel in Hillsboro. He previously worked full-time as a 'well-paid' software engineer for Intel plants in Israel and Hillsboro, McGeady said.
According to MacKenzie, Intel has not raised any questions about the arrest. 'The matter's in the hands of the FBI,' he said. 'We're not in a position to get further involved at this point.'
Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Gorder also declined to comment, other than to say the arrest was not motivated by Hawash's ethnicity or his politics.
'We don't prosecute or hold people because of their political views,' Gorder said.
Gorder is the lead prosecutor in the so-called Portland Six case, in which six Portland Muslims have been charged with conspiring to travel to Afghanistan to wage a holy war on U.S. soldiers. Gorder has hinted several times in court that additional indictments in that terrorism case may be coming.
Family on West Bank
Hawash has lived in the United States for 20 years and in the Portland area since 1992. He was born in Nablus, Palestine, in 1964, and he still has family members, including his mother, living in Israel's West Bank.
His supporters said Hawash never expressed radically militant views on the subject of Israel's occupation of Palestine or other heated Islamic issues. Debbie Burke, who worked with Hawash at an Intel plant in Israel from 1994 to 1996, described him as 'soft-spoken' and 'humble.'
'He was very comfortable working and living in Israel,' Burke said. 'He had many Israeli friends there as well as American and Arab friends.'
McGeady said Hawash expressed little emotion about events in the Middle East. 'I've never seen him get angry about Palestine,' he said. 'That doesn't mean he doesn't care.'
According to McGeady, Hawash worked as a volunteer to set up Internet service providers in the West Bank.
Hawash also has donated money to an Islamic charity that the U.S. government has accused of funding terrorism. According to tax records for the Global Relief Foundation, Hawash and his wife gave the charity more than $10,000 in two separate gifts in 2000.
Before the organization's assets were frozen in December 2001, Global Relief raised money widely to fund orphan schools, food distribution and medical assistance in war-torn regions such as Chechnya, Palestine and Kashmir.
The group had not been accused of any misdeeds when the Hawashes made their donations. Last October, however, the U.S. Treasury Department formally named Global Relief a 'specially designated global terrorist.'
It is unclear whether the government is considering charges against Hawash or merely trying to persuade him to testify for the Portland Six case. The material witness statute that permits his detainment has been on the books for decades, but it is used most often today to assist terrorism investigations.
Controversy over statute
Under the material witness statute, authorities can detain witnesses as long as necessary to obtain their testimony. But according to a post-Sept. 11 analysis by the Washington Post published last November, many of the material witnesses who were detained for terrorism investigations were released without having been interrogated. Some were held for months without charges, the Post reported.
David Fidanque, executive director of the Oregon American Civil Liberties Union, argues that the statute has been widely misused since Sept. 11.
'The government is trying to coerce cooperation in a situation where there isn't enough evidence to bring criminal charges,' Fidanque said. 'If the Mafia were to do something like this, we would call it kidnapping, coercion and racketeering.'
But Justice Department officials argue that the legal landscape has changed forever because of what happened on 9-11, making creative solutions and new legal tools a necessity.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft recently testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the nation's security 'requires a new culture of prevention. É Our survival and success in this long war on terrorism demands that we continuously adapt and improve our capabilities to protect Americans from a fanatical, ruthless enemy.'
There's no evidence that Hawash was involved in anything illegal, much less fanatical terrorism. His supporters argue that if he is not being charged with a crime, he should be released.
'We don't want our friend to disappear down into the halls of Sheridan Federal Prison and never be seen again,' McGeady said.