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Feds waiting to hear from Arab men in Michigan

By Carol Yancho
CNN Detroit Bureau

DETROIT, Michigan (CNN) -- Federal officials were waiting to hear Monday from about 300 mostly Arab men in Michigan on whether they would voluntarily submit to an interview as part of the investigation into the September 11 attacks.

The U.S. attorney's office of the Eastern District of Michigan sent letters at the end of last month asking 566 mostly Arab men in southeast Michigan between 18 and 33 to be interviewed.

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The letters were part of the U.S. Justice Department's probe in which 5,000 men who have arrived in America on a student, business or tourist visas from Middle Eastern and other countries since January 2000 have been asked to talk with the FBI.

More than 200 recipients in Michigan contacted the office to schedule an interview, said U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Collins. Two declined. Collins extended the contact deadline from December 4 to Monday.

A spokesperson for his office said Collins met with representatives of Michigan's Anti-Terrorism Task Force Monday to discuss among other things whether his office should continue to try to reach the 300 men who have not responded.

Arab American leaders in Dearborn, Michigan -- home to one of the country's largest Arab communities -- told government officials the letter is a form of "racial profiling."

Attorney General John Ashcroft denied those charges when he met with several leaders in a recent visit to Detroit.

Attorneys said their clients are receiving mixed signals from the government.

An internal Immigration and Naturalization Service memo said the government could detain immigration violators without bond if it was determined they might have pertinent information.

Mohammed Abdrabboh, one of several lawyers representing Arab men who have agreed to be interviewed, said the Arab American community is against terrorism and wants to help in any way possible. But its members do not want their civil rights compromised.

Ashcroft has said the government would assist those who provide credible information on the attacks in obtaining visas or green cards.

Abdrabboh said he is advising in-status clients -- that is, those who have valid immigration papers -- to submit to an interview with counsel present.

He has different advice for clients who may have overstayed their visas, or are out-of-status -- advising them to not submit to an interview.

"I don't know if they [government officials] are holding their [Arabs'] immigration status over their heads as a hammer, and I don't know the true intent of the government," said Abdrabboh.

"I've said it before, and I'll say it again, if the government would be clear that they're not targeting these people specifically for deportation, then it would be much easier to advise clients to come forward."

Abdrabboh said FBI agents were respectful and professional during interviews of his clients he has attended.

Wissam Safa, a 24-year-old Lebanese business administration student at Wayne State University, agreed. The FBI interviewed him last week.

"I went to seek legal advice, to know my rights, to know my duties, what to do ... and then I was expecting much more difficult questions," Safa said.

"The interview went well; it was smooth. The agents were really friendly. They were great. I was expecting a more difficult interview."

Safa said he was asked if he knew or recognized any of the 19 hijackers responsible for the attack, if he had participated in any political or military training in Lebanon, or if anyone from a terrorist organization had ever approached him. He said his answer was the same to all questions -- no.

The interview took 15 to 20 minutes, said Safa, who was relieved it was over.

"There's no need to panic. Everything will go great and just go for that interview," he said.


• Federal Bureau of Investigation
• U.S. Department of Justice
• U.S. Attorney General

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