Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Terrorism on the Prairie

One of the battlegrounds of the war on terror is our own backyard. Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri was a citizen of Qatar and a legal resident of the US, living with his family and attending Bradley University. Al-Marri is on trial in a federal court in Peoria.

Al-Marri had been arrested in 2001 and charged with credit card fraud in 2002, but was then detained as an enemy combatant and transferred to a brig in South Carolina in 2003. He was held there without charges and without access to a lawyer until 2004. He's been involved in complicated litigation since then. He was finally released from the brig in February 2009, only to be arrested for terrorism charges and transferred back to Peoria. Although he wasn't transferred to Guantanamo, he was isolated from other prisoners, denied access to all reading materials other than the Koran, and subjected to extreme cold.

The bottom line is that with the change of administration, al-Marri is going to be tried by a civilian court rather than these ginned up military commissions. And the conditions he was subjected to in the brig are likely to come out.

If those of us on the Prairie can possibly make it, the federal courthouse in Peoria is going to be the place to be for the next several months.

Obama's Civil Rights Appointment

It's hard to be upset at Obama given what he's up against and what he's done so far to restore the rule of law to this beleaguered country, but this was a bit disappointing.

The LA Times reports -- and the NY Times editorial page rues -- the fact that Obama bypassed Thomas Saenz, a prominent civil rights lawyer and the counsel to the Mayor of Los Angeles, for an appointment to the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice.

Saenz has been an important voice in the effort to make the rights of immigrants an important civil rights issue -- a frame for immigration policy that is sorely in need of development. In our policy debates, it is frustrating that immigration policy is so often discussed in terms of "homeland security" or law enforcement or border control or lots of other things that seem to involve weaponry. What's lost in all that discussion is the fact that immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, have basic human needs that don't always get met -- that is, immigration is a longstanding and pressing civil rights issue.

Saenz was trying to address those problems. In his legal career, he has led the effort to protect immigrants from unwarranted police raids, and he's worked on trying to secure rights to social services for immigrant populations. But because of these efforts, he's been labeled as an extremist. Google his name and see all the hysterical right wing propaganda that bubbles up.

Obviously, we don't know for sure, but that right wing hysteria is probably what kept Obama from naming Saenz to this post. But Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) noted the irony for us: “In what other position do you find that your life experience, your educational knowledge and commitment to an issue actually hurts you?”

Don't get me wrong -- it's all an improvement over the past 8 nightmarish years. Still, I sense that there will be more disappointments like these along the way.