Sunday, May 6, 2012

Refugees face new challenge after bomb case

Civil war drove Shullu Gorado from his home in Eritrea, a small country on the Horn of Africa, and landed him -- like most Kunama -- in a refugee camp in neighboring Ethiopia.
Ethiopia was no kinder to the refugees than their war-torn homeland, but the United States welcomed the Kunama people, promising safety and the opportunity for a new life to the former farmers and shepherds. In four years,Gorado rose steadily through the ranks at a local supermarket, stashing away savings and taking general-education and English-language classes as he worked toward a new future in a new country.
But after being arrested on suspicion of plotting to sneak a hoax explosive device through airport security, serving two months in a federal detention facility, then having the charges against him dropped in December,Gorado and Asa Shani are branded as terrorists in the eyes of many. Among those viewing them with suspicion, they say, are prospective employers who need only perform a perfunctory Internet search to find coverage of their arrests.

"If it's a different (kind of) case, maybe it's all right. But if they say, 'Terrorist,' there's nothing you can do," said Gorado, whose temporary job at a garbage facility ends this month. "No one wants to talk to you."
The refugees and federal investigators all agree that the government did a prudent thing in investigating a suspicious-looking package that was presented to security staff at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport last August, just weeks before the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The package's contents included a broken cellphone taped to a tin of food.
But Gorado is now left wondering if he has a future in the U.S., and if not, where he can go.
"They did good for security. If they check like this, then 9/11 won't happen again. But we are not that (terrorists). We are here to work, that's it. In this country, if you don't work, you can't live," Gorado said. "If I move, it's going to be the same no matter what, because of the Internet. No matter what, it's going to be the same."
Gorado, 25, and Shani, 34, were arrested with Luwiza Daman, 51, after Daman tried to take the tin of food and cellphone with her on a flight back to Iowa. The three were formally accused of willfully trying to conceal a material fact -- an item simulating an explosive -- which prosecutors believed might have been a "dry run" to test airport security for an attack marking the Sept. 11 anniversary.
Prosecutors contended that the organic material in the package was helva, a sesame-paste-based substance flavored with vanilla that could resemble explosive material on an X-ray machine, particularly when combined with a cellphone, which is frequently used as a remote detonating device.
The refugees, however, contend that they were simply taking candy and an old cellphone to relatives.

Quality of statements

The quality of the initial statements the refugees gave to federal investigators was the subject of much discussion in their early court hearings. The Kunama are an Eritrean ethnic minority. They are largely uneducated and speak a different dialect than the Eritrean majority. An interpreter federal agents used in initial contacts with the refugees did not speak Kunama, prompting defense attorneys to argue that the FBI's case was based on faulty linguistic interpretations.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Lawrence O. Anderson considered the quality of the statements, the defendants' lack of criminal history or motive, and the weight of the evidence against them in an August detention hearing, and found all those factors weighed in favor of their release.
But the risk of releasing the suspects outweighed those other factors, Anderson concluded.
"The seriousness of the context of the charge and the gravity of the consequences where a telephone and (improvised-explosive device) are smuggled on to an aircraft, weighs in favor of detention," he said in the hearing. "The law is not and should not require an act of terrorism with the deaths of many innocent people before our people, and even refugees, are safe in commercial aircraft travel."
Those are the kinds of factors federal agents must weigh daily in pursuing terrorist suspects, a mission that has topped the agency's agenda for the last decade, said James Turgal, special agent in charge of the Phoenix FBI office.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the agency has transformed from a law-enforcement body adept at putting the pieces back together after a disaster, to one intent on stopping attacks before they happen, Turgal said. That new charge has also forced agents to focus more closely on the civil rights of suspects, he said.
"We don't just open up a federal investigation because I want to," Turgal said in a recent interview. "The FBI's mission, along with our federal, state, local and tribal partners, is to protect the public. I balance that every day with the civil and constitutional rights of everyone out there."
The handling of the Eritrean refugees' case was driven by several factors, including the incident's proximity to Sept. 11 and the discovery several weeks earlier of a similar suspicious device at the Memphis airport.
Their arrests and the subsequent investigation also might not have happened before 2011, Turgal said. The agency's focus on collaborating with local agencies through programs such as the Joint Terrorism Task Force puts federal agents in a position to draw connections between events around the country and respond quickly at the local level, he said.
Agents in the refugees' case traveled around the U.S. to conduct interviews and track down leads, a costly but necessary proposition, he said.
Agents turned the results of their investigation over to the U.S. Attorney's Office, which decided to dismiss charges in March after new information came to light, according to court documents.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office declined comment.
Asked if he agreed with the decision not to charge the refugees, Turgal responded: "I feel comfortable in my agents' investigative activities."
That decision marked the end of the case for the federal government. But it began a new reality for the refugees. They were released from custody last October and placed on monitored home detention until March.

Coverage of arrest

Sitting recently in the small west Phoenix apartment he shares with several other refugees, Gorado quickly called up two topics on his computer: the refugee camp he fled in 2008, and the extensive coverage of his role as a suspected hoax bomber.
He said he fled the dusty farming community known as Shimelba Camp, where many of the Kunama live in thatched-roof mud huts, because he had no home in Africa and was granted refugee status in the U.S.
Gorado doubts now that he will ever be able to outrun coverage of the case that branded him a terrorist.
"When I'd been arrested, I'd never been to jail. We saw a lot of things in jail," he said. "It was my dream to come to the United States, to be an American citizen. But to live here you have to work. When I see the homeless, I don't feel good."
Wolde Shane, a relative of Asa Shani, said he hoped the incident would shed light on the needs of his small immigrant community, many of whom are experiencing technology and First World creature comforts for the first time.
"It's good they investigated everything and found them not guilty, but I can tell my community is still not understanding these types of things," Shane said. "If I took you to Africa and you didn't know their culture, how they live, you need to know these things to live. You do something wrong like them, you'd get into trouble."

Read more:

No comments:

Post a Comment