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Rights
By Behrouz Bahmani
December 9, 2003
The Iranian 
 

....With the recent news of Shirin Ebadi's Nobel Peace Prize, the spotlight has fallen once again on the power of Iranian women. Shirin is not the only activist among us. People like Mehrangiz Kar and others have long led the way. One such person is Banafsheh Akhlaghi who as you will see is another Iranian woman worthy of praise and deserving of our support. But as my new friend Alaleh likes to quote an Afghan proverb, "If all the oceans turned to ink and all the land to paper, it would not be enough to tell all our stories."

ATTENTION! New Information Regarding Re-Registration for 2003. If you are to report for a follow-up registration, please note that effective December 2, 2003, the US Department of Homeland Security has suspended the re-registration procedures. Click to Download additional information (PDF Reader Required) If you have any questions regarding this new regulation please consult an experienced attorney.

In June 2001 Banafsheh Akhlaghi had just finished filing the last of her application papers for a new and exciting post as a Constitutional Law professor at the beautiful University of Siena in Italy. Everything was going just as she had dreamed. Cush job in Italy? Are you kidding! And then, just as her wonderful life was about to begin, on September 11, everything changed.

Meanwhile before that day, a few right wing conservative politicians in Washington had periodically pressed for a few small anti-terrorism laws mostly to strengthen surveillance in the US. All their previous efforts had been defeated as too unconstitutional. Now, emboldened by the unprecedented attack on the US by world terror, and now with support coming directly from the White House, the anti terrorism laws re-emerged, this time with a brand new skin and a shiny coating, all they ever wanted, crammed into a 342 page monstrosity called appropriately enough, the Patriot Act.

They then proceeded to orchestrate a panic vote on it, allowing a mere 72 hours for debate. An anthrax scare shut down the halls for 48 of those precious hours and so with just 24 hours remaining, during America's most vulnerable moment, every senator except one, and 356 congressmen save 66 were strong armed and eventually convinced, to sign onto the single biggest attack on the US constitution. And then it was done.

Shortly thereafter, it began. Thousands of unwarranted detentions of men of middle eastern descent, round ups, people taken from their homes in the night, from their offices, without warning, without reason, without warrants and without charges. Many have simply disappeared. Some were processed with makeshift passport facilities and airlifted in unmarked planes to their home countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. When they got off the plane, many were promptly jailed, some even executed.

Banafsheh had just concluded one of her classes on constitutional law at the John F. Kennedy School of law in Orinda, when one of her students in the class, a Palestinian called her cell phone late one night and asked her to help a friend who had been contacted by the FBI and they had asked to meet him for an interview, and with all the arrests and detentions, he was afraid of what might happen.

As She drove to meet her first client, he called again and told her the FBI had requested to meet him at the Folsom (Sacramento area) zoo! This immediately worried Banafsheh and she told him to tell the FBI that the zoo wasn't going to work for him but that he would meet them at a local coffee shop. The FBI agreed. On the day of the meeting, when she arrived with her client, the FBI agents were visibly annoyed by this. They had not expected him to bring a lawyer and it turns out with good reason.

You see, when you are requested (and I stress when, because it is no longer a matter of if) you must schedule a formal meeting either at the FBI offices, or another mutually acceptable place within 2 weeks of the FBI's request. Clearly the FBI agents intended for this meeting at the zoo to be informal which is of course suspiciously improper. Why the zoo, is still a mystery.

The agents quickly cancelled the coffee shop meeting, and Banafsheh immediately sent letters to the agents as well as their supervisor, acknowledging the request for the meeting and offered two times and locations for a proper meeting to take place. Shortly after, she received a letter from the supervisor saying they had decided to cease and desist any further action on this individual.

Although relieved, Banafsheh was outraged. That such a stunt as this could be pulled! She began poring over the Patriot Act and with each page grew angrier and more shocked at the extent of the constitutional violations and the degree to which civil rights and civil liberties had been literally cancelled, and all by this one act.

So she put her life on old, and started a shoestring practice to help anyone who has been unfairly targeted. And she hasn't stopped to breathe since. Many people do not know the extent of the damage that the Patriot Act has done. It has in several instances superceded and pushed aside the US constitution. And now with Patriot Act II, it is going to get even more contentious. It is uncertain that it can be stopped in time. Even though over 100 cities in over 20 states in the US including San Jose (and recently Sacramento) have passed resolutions declaring it anti constitutional, refusing to abide by it's provisions. 2 states; Alaska, Hawaii have rebuked it entirely.

The offices of Akhlaghi Associates are on 444 De Haro street, in the Potrero Hill area south of San Francisco in what used to be called Media Gulch during the dot com era. The proudest object in the office is a large (albeit used) copy machine they recently received, donated by a grateful client. Until this, they had been using the copy option on their tiny fax machine.

" This is Counter to Intelligence." She said, half joking but with her anger rising as I met with her to write this piece. She is clearly furious and points out what has become a systemic illness that has befallen the US.

" But what do you propose is the alternative?" I asked. "This is after all a National Security crisis?"

" Yes, but National Security at what cost?" she responded.

Her clerical staff is made up of 3 recent college grads, 1 recent law school grad, 1 undergrad student, and part-time lawyer Maad Abu-Ghazalah who helps on as many cases as he can, because he is running for Congress against the very powerful Tom Lantos (D) California. These people have put their lives on hold to work here. Mark Maldonado, Alaleh Kianerci, Guissu Raafat, Dima Malhas and Beatrice Provencio, have found a calling so powerful they are not sure they can leave. No one is paid. They have weekend jobs for that. That's lucky because there isn't anything to pay them with. As Banafsheh put it, "I know I have next month's rent, that is all I know for sure."

2001 witnessed the INS registration fiasco and that further fueled the fire in this tiny law firm. Over 90,000 people were eventually registered. Some who were detained are still in limbo, their status undetermined. Held in conditions unimaginable; poor sanitation, without access to prescription medication, special cells that were kept at an unbearable 55 degrees without proper clothing or blankets, some shackled. For no reason. Not one has been connected to terrorism.

What is less known is that the original list that were to be registered included Armenians, as well as Cubans. However when their community groups heard this, calls were made and the Cuban and Armenian community was able to get themselves taken off the list within 24 hours. The Iranian community finally reacted only after it was too late. Iranians could do nothing. Years of apathetic apologetic living in the shadows now showed its real value. "And they knew that we would do nothing?" Banafasheh explained.

" Bruce," she said, " I would like to ask each Iranian just one question. What do you need to have happen before you can understand that we must all pull together here and now. That when even one of us is under attack, all of us are under attack."

" Iranians don't consider themselves part of this issue" I tried to add. "This is an Arab issue and somehow we are caught up in it. Once again it seems our attitude is, they can't possibly mean us."

" Yes, but don't think it is a mistake. We are truly under attack, under watch. It is time for us to stop thinking that they are not talking about us. The young man who pumps your gas, the tech worker, the student, the waiter in the restaurant- these are the people being detained."

"As long as the government looks at us the way they do, as long as we do nothing, as long as we act disconnected, this will continue to happen to us."

"Part of the problem may be that the individual can't see what they can do, what their contribution could be to change all this. How do we see results?" I asked half knowing the answer.

"Each of us can do something, the first is to vote, so that our voice is heard. Then we can put our money into campaigns and organizations that are informed on our issues and can speak on our behalf - support people who support us."

"Tomorrow (11/19) there is a demonstration outside of the INS offices in San Francisco. Do you know who goes to these rallies? It is shameful that our issues and causes are currently supported by white Americans!"

" Now is the time we must take all those degrees, all of the money we have made, all of the face (aberoo) we think we have to preserve, and do something with it. Anyone who thinks that we are all eventually going to go back to Iran, and that it is OK to turn our backs on each other now, is very wrong."

"30 years is not a temporary home. If not us, then our kids are here to stay. It is up to us to make our home our home."

Now this month starting on the 15th of November through December 16th, those who registered last year must re-register. It is the same situation all over again. " If you are called, if you are on the list, make sure you take your lawyer to the meeting" She advises.

Suspicions within the Iranian community, like isolated paradigms running around hitting each other have hurt, as the very people she has tried to help often ask her what her motives are. "What's in it for you?" They ask, completely unable to fathom or imagine that there isn't anything in it for her. But that is fine with her.

Maybe it is because some of the lesser specimens of the legal breed offer less than decent advice and behavior as the example she must now be compared to. Some Iranian lawyers who never even read the technical requirements of last year's registration, mistakenly advised their clients to go and get registered, when they did not have to. Some lawyers ot of greed refused to even help post as meager as a $5,000 bond for their clients suggesting that the best course of action was to wait (in jail) while their bond was sent from families. Some whose famlilies lived in Iran.

Banafsheh Akhlaghi was born in Abadan and came to the US at age 5 in the early seventies with her mother to visit her uncles who were attending college. Her father who worked in Iran sent them money and came over every few months to see them, and eventually moved to the US.

Banafsheh grew up in southern California in the Mission Viejo area and attended college at the University of San Francisco where serendipitously she got a degree in political science with an emphasis on International relations and Human Rights. Then spent one year at Cambridge in the UK and returned to the US to finish her law degree at Tulane University.

She has no future plans at this time. She is merely taking it one day at a time, one case at a time. She never intended for this to happen, but now that it has she has flung herself 24/7 headlong into it. Last Saturday she drove all day to the Yuba County jail to hear the story of a man detained for 6 months. The stress she is under is clearly visible and the toll it has taken on her personally and physically is immense.

But the gratification she receives from people she has successfully defended or gotten released is immeasurable. The beauty of humanity she has seen irreplaceable. She currently has a case in which a Pakistani is being held. She asked for an Urdu translator and 3 people showed up to help.

When I asked her why she does it, she replied, "We will all be questioned one day by our children about this time. And they will ask us, "How could you have let that happen? I for one, don't want to say that I stood by and did nothing."

So what do we do? Is it really easier to stand by and do nothing? Is it really that hard to get up off the ground and stand up? I can't speak for the rest of us, but having met Banafsheh and seeing it can be done, I am convinced to try. I hope you are as well.

It doesn't look like there is much time left to think about it anymore.

 
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