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Tigard man barred from returning home

by: Jaime Valdez Lina Tarhuni, 23, is fighting to bring her father home from Libya. Jamal Tarhuni hasn’t been allowed to fly back into the country for a month and hasn’t been given an explanation why.

It has been one month since Jamal Tarhuni was told he wouldn't be coming home.

The 55-year-old Tigard man has been blocked from returning to America after he spent three months working in Libya, delivering medical supplies to Libyans after the overthrow of leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Tarhuni, a former furniture storeowner, travelled to the country in October to deliver millions of dollars worth of medical supplies donated by Medical Teams International, the Tigard-based Christian health organization.

He was supposed to fly back to Portland on Jan. 17, but was not allowed on a U.S.-bound flight at an airport in Tunisia.

Tarhuni's daughter, Lina Tarhuni, said her father was given no explanation for why he couldn't get on the plane, and has been stuck in Tripoli ever since, living with extended family while he remains under investigation by the FBI.

This was the third trip Tarhuni had taken to the country in a year; all the trips were volunteer missions with Medical Teams.

On his most recent trip in October, Tarhuni flew to Libya to ensure that the supplies weren't intercepted at the port, his daughter explained.

'That happens a lot, where people will break into the containers and sell the items on the black market,' she said.

Medical Teams' trips can last from two weeks to six months, said Marlene Minor, a spokeswoman for the organization. Tarhuni's daughter said that problems with the port the shipments came into and constantly opening and closing borders between Tunisia and Libya kept her father longer than he had expected.

When the supplies were delivered, Tarhuni crossed the border into neighboring Tunisia and attempted to fly back to Portland but was told he wasn't allowed on the flight.

He was given little explanation, but after meeting with officials at the U.S. Embassy, Lina said her father was told to meet with members of the FBI, who questioned the Muslim man about his trip, his religion and the goings-on at his Southwest Portland mosque.

Lina Tarhuni said her father - who was born in Libya but moved to America for college and became a U.S. citizen - went against the advice of his lawyers and agreed to take a lie detector test, but later changed his mind, she said, after he was asked to sign a paper without reading it.

Lina said that form was a waiver signing away his constitutional rights.

'He got really offended by that. It's one thing to ask him if they wanted to do (the lie detector test), but to trick him into signing something that waives his right to an attorney and his constitutional rights is embarrassing.'

Tarhuni speaks to his family via Skype almost every day, Lina Tarhuni said, relaying the latest on his situation and talking to his four children.

'Sometimes Skype is our only way of talking because the telephones in Libya don't work sometimes,' she said.

Plans to board flight Monday

This week, Tarhuni's daughter said that her father was given the OK to return home, with provisions.

'They gave conditions,' she said. 'He has to fly on a U.S. flagged airline carrier and submit his itinerary and not change it or book his flight until it's OK'd.'

Lina Tarhuni also said they asked her father to sign a Traveler Redress Inquiry Program form with the Department of Homeland Security, a form for people who have been denied or delayed traveling.

Lina Tarhuni said signing the form would allow Tarhuni to fly back to Portland, but would strip him of his ability to sue the U.S. government for keeping him in Libya.

'There was no guarantee that his travel privileges would be restored, but they do guarantee that you can't sue us for how we violated you,' Lina Tarhuni said. 'Whether we decide to sue or not, it's not something that an innocent person should sign.'

Lina Tarhuni said her father refused to sign the document, but has agreed to submit his itinerary and board a U.S. flagged plane on Monday, Feb. 13.

'Fingers crossed they will let him come home,' Lina Tarhuni said.

But Lina said she fears this won't be the end of her father's troubles.

'I don't think that will be the end,' she said. 'When you become a target for them, now they (the FBI) are upset because they know we're on to them. They usually target people who are voiceless and afraid to speak out for themselves. Usually the kind of people they target can't defend themselves, but they have targeted someone who will fight for his rights. If he has to prove his innocence, he hasn't done anything wrong and he will defend his rights as an American citizen.'

Despite everything, Lina Tarhuni said her father is optimistic about his trip home on Monday.

'But, he is also ready for whatever they want to bring his way,' she said.

If Tarhuni is blocked from flying home on Monday, Lina Tarhuni said, her family will continue to work to bring her father home.

'We are all hoping and wishing it does work,' she said.

Lina Tarhuni said that her father could come home another way besides air travel - such as sailing home - without problem, but said her father shouldn't have to make the journey any other way than by air.

'He's not willing to fly in unless he flies in the same way he flew out,' she said.

Not an isolated case

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden's office has looked into Tarhuni's situation, and a spokesman for the senator said that they have been in contact with the FBI about the case, but have been asked not to divulge specifics about the situation.

'Our concern remains the same,' said Tom Townslee, a Wyden spokesman. 'Anybody who is a naturalized citizen in the U.S. and lives in Oregon and in Mr. Tarhuni's case is a volunteer with a reputable organization, we want to make sure that they are treated fairly. It remains to be seen what happens next.'

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organization, has asked the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to intervene in the matter.

'Whatever questions American officials have for Mr. Tarhuni, no one should be barred from his or her country of citizenship without so much as a court hearing,' the group wrote to Clinton in a letter dated Feb. 3. 'It is immoral and unlawful for the United States to separate an American citizen from his children, his family and his country.'

This week the group asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the Portland office of the FBI for coercion and intimidation against Tarhuni and another Portland man in the same situation.

Mustafa Elogbi, of Portland, was visiting Libya on vacation and was detained in Britain on his way home to Portland. He was reportedly kept in solitary confinement for two days before he was sent back to Tunisia.

Both men attend The Islamic Center of Portland, the mosque that made headlines years ago for being linked to the Portland Seven, an alleged terror cell that tried to join al-Qaeda forces in 2002.

The Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations has said it has received three reports of Portland FBI agents restricting travel for Muslim U.S. citizens in the last six months.

A third case from last year involved a man detained in Britain on a trip to Italy last year.

'This incident raises broader concerns that the anti-Muslim training given to FBI agents and other law enforcement personnel in recent years is having an effect on the actions agents are taking in the field,' wrote Gadeir Abbas, a Muslim council attorney representing Tarhuni. 'It is counterproductive and unconstitutional for FBI agents to equate belief in Islam with a propensity to commit acts of violence - as they seem to have done with Mr. Tarhuni.'

The Portland FBI field office declined to comment on Tarhuni's situation.




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