Probe Sought After 2 Barred From Returning To US

Published February 7, 2012 10:36PM (EST)

McLEAN, Va. (AP) — A Muslim civil rights group wants the Justice Department to investigate the tactics of FBI agents in Portland, Ore., after two Libyan-Americans from the area were recently barred from returning to the United States.

The two men — Jamal Tarhuni, 55, of Tigard, and Mustafa Elogbi, 60, of Portland — traveled separately to Libya following the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi. Tarhuni delivered humanitarian supplies with the group Medical Teams International, while Elogbi went to visit family.

Last month, though, both Libyan-born U.S. citizens were barred from return flights to the U.S. and told the FBI wanted to question them.

The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations said that it has now received three reports of Portland FBI agents' involvement in travel restrictions for Muslim U.S. citizens in the last six months. The other case involved a man who made headlines last year when he was detained in Britain as he tried to travel to Italy.

Tarhuni was stopped in Tunisia, where he says he was questioned by a Portland-based FBI agent. Tarhuni said he initially agreed to the questioning that delved into his religious practices, but stopped the interview after he was strapped to a lie detector and asked to waive his Miranda rights.

Elogbi got as far as a connecting flight in London before being sent back to Tunisia. He was held in a British jail for two days and told by British authorities that the U.S. government was preventing him from flying home.

Elogbi said his situation is especially insulting because he went to Libya to celebrate the demise of a regime that quashed citizens' liberty.

"Now I find myself like in the times of Gadhafi, put in jail for no reason," Elogbi said in a telephone interview from Tripoli. "That is humiliation for an American citizen. I cannot accept it."

It is not clear why the FBI wants to question either man. Beth Anne Steele, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Portland office, declined comment.

Both men are members of the Islamic Center of Portland, which has drawn scrutiny from law enforcement. In 2010, the mosque's imam filed a federal lawsuit challenging his placement on the government's no-fly list.

Elogbi has been a naturalized U.S. citizen for more than 30 years. His wife, Annie Petrossian, said her husband has never been especially political, but when mass protests began to rock the Gadhafi regime, he participated in anti-Gadhafi rallies in the U.S. and traveled several times to the border between Libya and Tunisia to help at refugee camps. While he sometimes faced extensive questions at customs when he returned to the U.S., he never had any serious difficulties traveling until last month.

CAIR attorney Gadeir Abbas, who has represented dozens of Muslims who have had their travel to the U.S. restricted, said the tactics used by the Portland FBI have been especially brazen. Elogbi's case is particularly troublesome because it appears he was detained by British authorities at U.S. request.

"This is the third report in six months CAIR has received of agents from the FBI's Portland Field Office involved in detaining an American citizen through a foreign proxy or preventing an American citizen from returning to the United States," Abbas wrote Monday in a letter to Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, head of the Justice Department's civil rights division.

The other case occurred last year when Portland resident Michael Migliore was apparently placed on the no-fly list after refusing to be interviewed without a lawyer by FBI agents. The FBI was investigating a foiled 2010 plot to bomb a Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

Abbas said it appears that Elogbi has not received even the minimal due process afforded under placement on that list. Typically, when an individual is placed on such a list, they are not able to board even the first leg of a U.S.-bound itinerary. In Elogbi's case, he was allowed to fly from Tunis to London before being turned away, and again placed on a flight back from London to Tunis. Abbas said it appears the FBI is acting in an "ad hoc" fashion to pressure Muslim citizens into cooperating with investigations.

The Justice Department said Tuesday that it's reviewing CAIR's letter requesting an investigation.

In recent years, the scope of the no-fly list has expanded significantly. Government officials said the list has doubled in the past year, to more than 20,000 individuals, including about 500 Americans.

Both families have also sought assistance from Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. A spokesman, Tom Towslee, said Wyden has inquired with the FBI about Tarhuni's situation, but has not yet received a response. He said Wyden "wants to make sure he's treated fairly" as a U.S. citizen and Oregon resident who traveled to Libya with a reputable humanitarian group. Towslee did not have information on Elogbi.

Elogbi and Tarhuni are planning to try to fly to the U.S. next week, accompanied by an attorney, though they have received no assurances that they will be able to travel. Elogbi said his health has deteriorated because of the stress and because he has run out of his blood-pressure medication.

"I don't even know what the FBI wants from me," Elogbi said. "When you are treated like a criminal by your own country, that really hurts."

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------