Civil Rights Groups File Freedom of Information Act Request in Wake of Reports of FBI Harassment of Muslims in Lodi, CA

June 16, 2005 12:00 am

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SACRAMENTO — Prompted by reports from the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Sacramento Valley and the Muslim community, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and local civil rights groups today filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking FBI records of the procedures and policies used during the questioning and detention of dozens of Muslims in the Central Valley town of Lodi.

Lodi has become the center of an FBI investigation that has led to the arrests of five Muslims, two of whom are U.S. citizens. They were charged with making false statements to federal officials and three others were charged with alleged immigration violations. The FOIA request is being filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and the ACLU of Northern California.

“We appreciate and respect the need of the FBI to conduct investigations of possible criminal activity; however any investigation needs to be done in a way that respects individual’s rights,” said Mark Schlosberg, Police Practices Policy Director of the ACLU of Northern California. “Heavy-handed law enforcement activities that do not respect people’s rights engender distrust of the community and are ultimately counterproductive.”

CAIR officials in Sacramento say they have received numerous reports of intimidating tactics used recently by some FBI agents. Reports of inappropriate conduct by law enforcement officials include threats of arrest or deportation used to coerce cooperation, unnecessary use of force, denial of medical treatment, and constant FBI surveillance of regular mosque attendees.

“Law enforcement authorities have every right to follow up on legitimate leads in a criminal investigation, but to target an entire community and conduct a ’round up the usual suspects’ approach will only serve to intimidate those whose cooperation is sought,” said Basim Elkaara, Executive Director of CAIR’s Sacramento Valley office.

The civil rights groups are seeking expedited processing of the FOIA request because of the widespread media attention on the FBI activities in Lodi and the fact that the records sought relate “to the loss of substantial due process rights.” In particular, the FOIA refers to the possible violations of individuals’ rights to have access to attorneys, translators, medical attention and the right to be free from inappropriate government surveillance. Expedited processing means that the FBI would have 10 calendar days to respond to the FOIA request.

“The climate of fear is alienating the very people whose assistance the government seeks,” said Shirin Sinnar, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. “In light of reports that people have been denied access to counsel, pressured into interviews despite their requests to contact a lawyer, and otherwise discouraged from exercising their legal rights, we are asking the FBI to clarify its policies.”

In addition, the civil rights groups said they are concerned about the FBI surveillance of a Town Hall meeting in Stockton on June 11, 2005. The “Know Your Rights” event was sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“We are extremely troubled by reports that Muslims in the Lodi community are being advised by FBI officials that they are not entitled to legal representation and should not seek it,” said Marwa Elzankaly, President of the Bay Area Muslim Association of Muslim Lawyers. “We are also troubled that attorneys have been prevented from access to their clients. As a result, BAAML is continuously working to ensure that members of the Muslim community are fully informed of their legal rights and responsibilities and to ensure that they have adequate legal resources available to them.”

The FOIA request is being sent to the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, the Sacramento Headquarters of the FBI, other local FBI offices in the central valley, and federal offices in Washington D.C.

The FOIA request is online at: /node/35444.

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