Hassiba BelBachir, 28, had come to America to live the American dream. But she died mysteriously in the US detention before she could ever experience it.
She was not serving time. She was not charged with any crime. She was put in detention to wait for an immigration hearing. She was found dead in less than ten days in a prison designed for hardcore criminals not for docile asylum seekers who are willing to do anything you ask as long as you let them stay in America.
While in Chicago for three months, she discovered that Spain had a possible job opportunity for her in her specialty, the Spanish language, which she majored in in a college in Spain. That's where she was headed in early March 2005 when she was stopped by authorities in Britain. They found problems in her immigration papers.
In Britain, she was detained for one week and then sent back-not to Algeria-the land of her birth, nor France, the country of her passport. She was sent back to the United States.
Upon her arrival, BelBachir was detained by federal immigration authorities then transported to McHenry County Jail. It was there that she was found dead Thursday March 17, 2005.
BelBachir's sister, who lives in Canada, was told about her death on Friday. She wanted to come immediately to take care of funeral arrangements. However, US immigration officials asked her not to come until Monday.
BelBachir's body was handed over to her sister on Tuesday March 22, 2005. On Wednesday, her funeral took place at the Muslim Community Center in Chicago. The following day, her body was shipped with her sister to Algeria, the land she wanted to leave behind, a land of trouble where people had not been able to hold elections to determine how they will run their affairs. That was the end of the loop for Hassiba BelBachir on this earth. We pray that her sins are forgiven and she enters Jannah for the pains suffered on this earth. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajiun. To Allah we belong and to Him we return.
The issue doesn't end there though. There are many holes in the story of Hassiba BelBachir's death. Prison officials claim she committed suicide after a bout of depression. Her family strongly disagrees.
A few hours before her death, she spoke to her sister in Canada, who says she was her usual self. She was not depressed. She was neither crying nor upset. As the conversation ended, she told her sister that she would call her again in the afternoon. But the afternoon never came for Hassiba.
Instead, the next day, after almost 24 hours, an immigration officer informed BelBachir's sister of Hassiba's death. Her sister and her cousin, who saw BelBachir's body, are fully convinced that she did not commit suicide as prison officers are implying.
Prison officers have given conflicting information to the media about BelBachir's death. Some said she killed herself with socks. Then they said she did it with pantyhose. They also claim she did not hang herself but strangled herself on the prison floor. They have also claimed she was being treated for depression and that she had tried to commit suicide only days before her death. But there are major problems with these statements.
First, she spoke to her sister the morning before her death and was perfectly healthy. She was not depressed.
Second, it is impossible for anyone to commit suicide by strangling themselves with socks considering their small size and elasticity. Also, humans are incapable of suffocating themselves, since the body's natural response is to fight back and not allow that to happen.
Also, BelBachir could not have used pantyhose to strangle herself because pantyhose is prohibited in the US prison system.
Third, if she tried to commit suicide three days before her death, why was she not put under a suicide watch? Why was her family not informed about this? If she was under suicide watch, then what kind of mental health was provided to her? Are the county jails in the Midwest equipped to handle the mental health of asylum seekers and illegal aliens who are kept there? Do they have the proper language skills and cultural training for this?
In addition, if BelBachir was under suicide watch, how was she able to commit suicide while somebody was watching her?
Those who have seen her body believe suicide is not the truth. If Hassiba BelBachir did not commit suicide, who killed her and why? And why is the prison system giving out conflicting stories to different media organizations? Why did they not themselves announce the death to the media? Why did they tell the family the autopsy report would not be available for six to eight weeks?
Women in American prisons
According to a Amnesty International USA report, there are 148,200 women in state and federal prisons. In federal women's correctional facilities, 70 percent of guards are male. Records show correctional officials have subjected female inmates to rape, other sexual assault, sexual extortion, and groping during body searches. Male correctional officials watch women undressing, in the shower or the toilet. Male correctional officials retaliate, often brutally, against female inmates who complain about sexual assault and harassment.
At this moment, we don't know how many Muslim women are in the prison system, but they are certainly subject to similar types of challenges as other female prisoners and perhaps more because of their religion and culture. They have to struggle with cultural unfamiliarity with the prison system, as well as a lack of ability to speak the language if they do not speak English. Women are rarely involved in crimes in Muslim world and hardly ever placed in prison.
It has been reported that there are dozens of women in the same prison where Hassiba BelBachir was found dead.
The questions about McHenry County Jail
BelBachir was detained not in a federal prison where normally, immigration violators are kept. She was guilty of no crime. She was simply waiting for a hearing before a judge to determine her immigration status.
She was sent to McHenry County Jail in Illinois, which houses several immigrants women. Immigrants and human rights advocates have twice in the past requested the Homeland Security department, asking officials to conduct an audit of this facility because of several complaints about how they treat immigrants waiting for their hearings. So far, Homeland Security has not conducted that audit.
Abusing Muslims in Prison is a Pattern
If the Inspector General of the US Justice Department is to be believed, this is what Muslim prisoners are facing in the prison system at this moment. The situation for them is exceptionally harsh and many times without reason they are kept in solitary confinement, subject to verbal and other forms of physical abuse. In his March 11, 2005 report the Inspector General even complains that the Justice department is not taking any action to implement his recommendations.
Abuse in the US prison system is not new. Darryl Hunt, a death row inmate in North Carolina, told this author that after seeing photos of abuse in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, "I thought these were photos of prisons in North Carolina." It took Darryl Hunt 18 years to get released for a crime he did not commit.
While many government institutions have been a cause of the problem of what Muslims are facing, some are still working to remedy that and one of these is the Inspector General of the Justice Department.
Hassiba's story is not an isolated one. In the last two months in Chicago, five Muslims have died unnatural deaths. One cab driver was brutally murdered in front of thirteen people by a passenger who used his own cab to drive over his body more than three times; three young Muslims were killed by a drunk police officer who reportedly is now walking free, probably on bond. Now we encounter BelBachir's death.
The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago is pursuing both the case of the murdered cab driver case and now that of Hassiba BelBachir to make sure that justice is done. But this violence against Muslims seems like a pattern and is symptomatic of what the Muslim community has been suffering since the 9/11 terror attacks.
9/11 and its repercussions
Since 9/11, Muslims in America have been suffering as a result of government policies as well as rampant discrimination against Muslims.
A Zogby survey as well as a number of community and human rights organizations have determined that 26 percent of Muslims have bore the brunt of the anti-Muslim backlash post-9/11. Those Muslims who have been the victims of public policies represent a large number, but statistics are difficult to come by since former US Attorney General John Ashcroft asked federal, state and city law enforcement not to issue data about this. Based on whatever data was issued or compiled by other organizations, the number of Muslims affected by government policies is over 200,000 in the US.
Immigrants in America are now the most vulnerable
The people worst affected by 9/11 remain new immigrants. Those who have suffered are people who have had some mistake or problems with their immigration papers, but who have not been convicted of any crime.
But statistics are one thing. The human face of this impact is incredibly sad and people continue to suffer. At least 18,000 Muslims have been deported in the last couple of years. The actual number of people who fled and sought asylum in Canada or abandoned their green cards and went back to their home countries is far higher.
The Washington Post reports at least 15,000 out of a community of 120,000 have fled from Brooklyn, New York alone (see "An Exodus Grows in Brooklyn: 9/11 Still Rippling Through Pakistani Neighborhood," Washington Post, May 29, 2003; Page A01).
Similarly, due to immigrant flight business on Chicago's Devon Avenue, the largest South Asian neighborhood in the Midwest, is down by 40 to 50 percent, with dozens of companies shutting down.
If the figure of 15,000 Pakistanis who fled from New York is correct, then it is possible that all immigrants from the 25 targeted countries who returned to their own countries or fled to other ones may be even higher than 50,000.
Unlike Japan and Germany, who are facing major labor problems, America so far has been able to balance its population and future labor needs for both skilled and unskilled workforce with the help of immigration.
If immigrants are hunted down by vigilantes on the US-Mexico border and because of their faith and skin color on the Canadian border, as well as the US landing points, we may soon face the challenges Japan and Germany are facing today.
General abuse in the US prison system
Prison is designed to be tough. It's punishment although at some level, it's also supposed to be a corrective measure, hence the term "correctional facility" for it. However, abuse of authority makes it worse. Perhaps it is no surprise that one of the soldiers guilty of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison was himself a prison guard.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, "in recent years, U.S. prison inmates have been beaten with fists and batons, stomped on, kicked, shot, stunned with electronic devices, doused with chemical sprays, choked, and slammed face first onto concrete floors by the officers whose job it is to guard them. Inmates have ended up with broken jaws, smashed ribs, perforated eardrums, missing teeth, burn scars-not to mention psychological scars and emotional pain. Some have died."
We can end tragedies like the death of Hassiba BelBachir by persistence. We must continue to ask questions and investigate. We must not allow her death to go unnoticed and unexplained. This is the best way to prevent such incidents in the future.
What you can do about it:
The Council of Islamic organizations of Greater Chicago has demanded that the Inspector General of the Homeland Security investigate this case since she was in their detention.
You can volunteer with the Council to work on the case.
Connect with immigrant rights, civil rights, prisoners' rights and human rights groups requesting them to take interest in this case.
Ask your mosque and your organization what they are doing to protect people who are most vulnerable in our society.
Pray that other Hassibas of the world remain safe and free.