'Patriot Act' detainment riles Oregon church and community
Written by William C. Winslow
June 2003

The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, aka the Patriot Act, has a human face. The image is currently focused on a naturalized Palestinian software engineer named Maher "Mike" Hawash. He has run afoul of the Patriot Act, and it has riled his community, including First Congregational UCC in Hillsboro, Ore.

The basic facts are these.

On March 20, the FBI arrested Hawash as he was exiting his car in the parking lot of his employer, the big computer chip manufacturer Intel. He was held in solitary confinement and not charged with any crime but as a "material witness" in the government's ongoing terrorism investigation.

The Fifth Amendment forbids detention without an indictment. However, the 1984 Material Witness Statute allows for the detention of individuals who have material testimony and are considered a flight risk.

While he was incarcerated, the government convened a grand jury hearing to consider evidence against him.

Early on, an armed force searched his home in the presence of his wife and three children and carted away computers and other materials. He was allowed legal counsel, but a gag order prohibited lawyers from speaking publicly. Grand jury proceedings are normally held in secret. His family had limited visiting rights.

All of this is perfectly legal, according to the Rev. Charles Hinkle, a UCC minister and attorney who does volunteer work for the Oregon ACLU. The problem, Hinkle says, is how long the government can hold an individual without pressing charges. "I think he was held too long," he says. So does the community, elements of which have reacted with fear and dismay.

"We were horrified he was held for over a month with no charges," says the Rev. Diane Dulin, pastor of First Congregational UCC. "It is a violation of his civil rights." Other church members have taken direct action. Robyn Parnell publicized the case by writing to the Oregon Congressional delegation and e-mailing church members and outside friends.

Dulin's husband, Thomas Beilman, was particularly incensed that agents went to the Hawash home with drawn weapons in front of the family. "This activity broke my heart," he says. "Mike disappeared and the government had no obligation to tell us anything." Beilman says he is "compelled by my faith" to help the family and has lobbied the media to "follow the story."

Others in the community see a bias against Muslims, even American ones with long-standing roots in the community.

"If he was white, and especially if he was rich and white, he wouldn't be in jail," argues Steven McGeady, his former boss at Intel, "unless they had an indictment against him." McGeady believes the government is targeting Arab-American men in an attempt "to show the American public that they're being tough on terrorism."

Indeed, as of the end of last year, the government's Terrorism Task Force had detained over 40 men of Middle-Eastern descent, many held without charges and as material witnesses. Some subsequently were charged, but to date no one has been convicted.

The Oregon case has provoked fear among the Muslim community, especially at the Bilal Mosque in nearby Beaverton, where the Hawash family regularly worships. "Everyone feels that they are under suspicion and are very scared," says Shahriar Ahmed, president of the mosque. "The atmosphere in the mosque is like that of a Polish ghetto."

First Congregational UCC and the mosque have long had an interfaith relationship. This year the church took its confirmation class to Islamic Friday night prayers, while Muslim congregants have visited the church. "We have a strong sense of interfaith witness," notes Dulin.

After 40 days in limbo, the government finally broke its silence on April 28 and filed a complaint charging Maher Hawash with conspiracy to aid al-Qaida and the Taliban by allegedly trying to travel to Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 to fight against U.S. troops. He has denied the charges, and a trial is set for this summer.

In a note from prison to his supporters, Hawash wrote, "I can glimpse the sunshine outside my window, but I can't touch it, and it can't touch me. Still, I am grateful that I can see the shine of the sun."

William C. Winslow is a free-lance writer based in New York City.

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To learn more about the church's response to the U.S.A. Patriot Act, including links to related articles and statements, visit the UCC website at  ucc.org/justice/civilliberties.

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