By Nigel Duara
A Libyan-American who says he was forbidden from returning to the United States and questioned by FBI agents in Tunisia after visiting neighboring Libya insists he has done nothing wrong.
“I do intend to protect my rights. I do intend to clear my name,” 55-year-old Jamal Tarhuni said after arriving at Portland International Airport Tuesday morning from Amsterdam.
Tarhuni belongs to a Portland mosque that has been under scrutiny by federal investigators in years past.
He traveled to Libya last fall to help deliver humanitarian supplies. Tarhuni said he was barred without explanation from flying home on a flight from Tunis, Tunisia, on Jan. 17 and that he was told he should report to the U.S. Consulate.
Tarhuni said when he went to the consulate he was told he was on a no-fly list and was questioned by two FBI agents about his religious beliefs, whether he believes in Sharia law and about his mosque.
He said when the agents asked him to waive his Miranda rights he called his attorney, Thomas Nelson of Portland. Nelson advised Tarhuni to stop the interview with the agents, which Tarhuni did, and then he left the consulate.
Nelson flew to Tunisia and returned with Tarhuni on Tuesday. Asked why Tarhuni was allowed to leave, Nelson said the pair “raised hell” with the help of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
“They didn’t have a case,” Nelson said. “I said this is not an investigation, this is coercion.”
Nelson said the U.S. Consulate in Tunisia told him earlier this month they thought Tarhuni could travel, but neither Tarhuni nor his attorney was certain he would be allowed into the U.S. until they reached Amsterdam.
Wyden spokesman Tom Towslee confirmed that the senator had inquired about Tarhuni’s case, but said “there’s a lot we don’t know.”
“It’s hard to be concerned without knowing what’s going on,” Towslee said. “Obviously the FBI has something going on there.”
Towslee said of Tarhuni: “We’re glad he’s home.”
The FBI refused to comment.
The Portland mosque where Tarhuni worships, Masjid al-Sabr, has attracted the interest of federal investigators since the first years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York City and the Pentagon.
Mohamed Mohamud, a Somali-American awaiting trial on a charge of plotting to detonate a bomb at Portland’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony in November 2010, worshipped there occasionally.
The mosque’s imam, Mohamed Sheikh Abdirahman Kariye, was arrested at Portland International Airport in September 2002 by an FBI-led anti-terrorism task force. He pleaded guilty to using a fraudulent Social Security number and defrauding a state health insurance program for the poor by underestimating his income. A federal judge sentenced Kariye to five years on probation.
Most recently, three Muslim men from Portland traveling abroad have discovered they are facing travel restrictions.
They include Tarhuni as well as another Libyan-American, 60-year-old Mustafa Elogbi. Like Tarhuni, Elogbi traveled to Libya after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi. Elogbi went to visit family.
He planned to return last month. Elogbi got as far as a connecting flight in London before he was sent back to Tunisia, he said earlier this month. He said he was held in a British jail for two days and told by British authorities that the U.S. government was preventing him from flying home.
Elogbi is still in Tunisia but says he has been told he will be allowed to return to the U.S. this week.
Last year, Portland resident Michael Migliore, a Muslim convert, traveled to England by boat because of his apparent placement on the U.S. no-fly list. He was detained upon arrival and later released by British authorities.
Tarhuni said that when he was interviewed by the FBI agents in Tunis, they were interested in activities at the mosque.
“They wanted to know about people, what they do in there,” Tarhuni said. “For them to try to link people to a certain place and assume that they are part of a group, that is wrong.”
Tarhuni and Elogbi are getting support from the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has asked the Justice Department to investigate the tactics of FBI agents in Portland.
Source: Bloomberg Business Week