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."
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
what do you propose is the alternative?" I asked. "This
is after all a National Security crisis?"
but National Security at what cost?" she responded.
clerical staff is made up of 3 recent college grads, 1
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
(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."
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.
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
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."
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."
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."
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
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."
(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!"
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."
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
doesn't look like there is much time left to think about