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Muslims Hold Forum, With Absences

Times Staff Writers

Muslim American groups from Southern California held a town hall meeting Monday to discuss with federal officials what they call unfair targeting of Muslim travelers and immigrants in the wake of 9/11.

Nearly 500 people attended the meeting, held at a La Mirada hotel. But not everyone on the coalition’s guest list showed up.

A representative of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said that a week ago he invited officials from the Department of Homeland Security, including the local heads of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Transportation Security Administration.

The officials declined, said Omar Zaki, director of government relations for CAIR’s office in Anaheim. The officials said that their local offices handle only enforcement and do not set policy, Zaki said.

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Lori Haley, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to comment Monday.

The Department of Homeland Security has “completely closed the door on this community,” said Zaki at Monday’s meeting. “They’ve taken the position that it isn’t important for them to be here. They’ve avoided every opportunity to talk with us. Their arrogance is not acceptable. This is about accountability.”

The FBI, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice and not Homeland Security, did send a representative. Matt McLaughlin, special projects coordinator for an outreach program to the Muslim community, told the audience that the FBI “wants to be sensitive when it makes sense. Our government isn’t perfect -- mistakes can occur. We are trying to treat everyone with dignity and respect, but also do the very difficult job of protecting you all.”

In an interview before the meeting, McLaughlin said that the FBI and the Muslim community “need to remain in dialogue, whether it’s a happy day or a sad day. I think it’s important that the FBI be here to listen to the community.”

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Muslim community leaders, however, had hoped that immigration and transportation safety officials would attend to address some of the apprehensions in their community.

“What message are they sending?” CAIR spokeswoman Sabiha Khan asked of the absent officials. “Whatever happened to accountability?”

Khan said the meeting was meant to give officials an opportunity to respond to charges that Muslims are being unfairly targeted by immigration authorities and unnecessarily scrutinized when traveling.

Since 9/11, some Muslim travelers have been prevented from flying and some Muslim immigrants have been detained indefinitely without bail. At least three Muslim leaders from Orange County are currently being held: Abdel Jabbar Hamdan of Buena Park; Abdel Malik, an imam at the Islamic Center of Irvine; and Wagdy Mohamed Ghoneim of Anaheim.

Ghoneim, 53, who was arrested Nov. 4, was taken from the federal detention center in San Pedro, where he is being held, to a hospital Saturday morning after complaining of chest pains. He has maintained that he is in the country legally.

His attorney, Valerie Curtis-Diop, said Monday that Ghoneim was back in his cell by Sunday evening. His family was not allowed to see him because the hospital had no security provisions, she said.

Monday night, Ghoneim’s daughter spoke to the crowd.

“He is being accused for nothing. In this country, people are innocent until proven guilty. But that’s not the situation with my dad,” Tasnim Ghoneim said.

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“Yesterday he was chained to his bed,” she said. “It was terrible. My dad was first -- your dad may be second.”

Curtis-Diop said she had sought to expedite Ghoneim’s bond hearing from its Dec. 28 scheduled date, but she was told that the judge had no other opening in the court schedule.


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