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American aid worker in Libya: US bars my return

Lina Tarhuni

Jamal Tarhuni from Portland, Ore. is photographed with a Libyan boy injured during the fighting in March. The boy was being treated at a hospital in Tataouine, Tunisia, where many Libyans took refuge from the war.

Updated at 6 p.m. ET: The Federal Bureau of Investigations returned calls to msnbc.com after we published our story about Jamal Tarhuni, an American citizen who was barred from flying back to the United States on Jan. 17 at the end of an aid mission to Libya.

“At this point we have no comment,” said Beth Ann Steele, with media relations at the FBI office in Portland, which dispatched an agent to Tarhuni’s questioning at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis.

An FBI counterterrorism official in Washington who asked not to be named confirmed that the government does not disclose the no-fly list.

“There are legitimate security reasons for the government’s policy not to disclose who is on the no-fly list,” which is maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center. The official said: “Terrorists could change their identities or use individuals who are unknown to the U.S. intelligence community to carry out terror attacks.”

Questions about Tarhuni’s allegation that an FBI agent had attempted to get him to sign a waiver of his Miranda rights were referred to a different part of the FBI. 

The nonprofit civil rights organization Council on American Islamic Relations called on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to intervene in Tarhuni’s case.

“Whatever questions American officials have for Mr. Tarhuni, no one should be barred from his or her country of citizenship without so much as a court hearing. It is immoral and unlawful for the United States to separate an American citizen from his children, his family and his country,” CAIR said in a letter to Clinton on Friday.

“This incident raises broader concerns that the anti-Muslim training given to FBI agents and other law enforcement personnel in recent years is having an effect on the actions agents are taking in the field. It is counterproductive and unconstitutional for FBI agents to equate belief in Islam with a propensity to commit acts of violence -- as they seem to have done with Mr. Tarhuni."

Original post: The ouster of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi was life-changing for Jamal Tarhuni, an American citizen from the North African country who was granted U.S. asylum in the 1970s. Over the past year as Libyans fought to destroy the vestiges of the four-decade long dictatorship, Tarhuni threw himself into aid work for his native country.

Now the Portland businessman is fighting for his right to fly home to the United States. Sometime during his most recent aid mission to Libya, it appears, Tarhuni landed on the government's no-fly list — a secret roster of thousands of people, including hundreds of Americans, whom the Department of Homeland Security has identified as terror suspects.

"(The United States) is a country that has given me a lot," Tarhuni said, speaking to msnbc.com from Tripoli. "All of the sudden this country I love very much has given me a slap in the face … Here we are, we just got rid of this regime (Gadhafi)… and this happens to me in the United States of America. It was really mind-boggling."

Tarhuni, 55, a naturalized U.S. citizen educated as an engineer, was preparing to return home on Jan. 17 when the run-in occurred. He had been working in Libya since October — overseeing delivery of medical supplies and food to hospitals and Libyan refugees — and was eager to get back to his wife and three children in their home in Portland, Ore. The trip had been drawn out, he said, because the aid shipments were delayed by snags at the port and at the border with Libya, which had been closed periodically.

"Based on our experience with (Tarhuni), we believe there must be some misunderstanding," said Bill Essig, the vice president of Medical Teams International, the Portland-based Christian nonprofit for which Tarhuni was working in Libya. He confirmed that this was the third Libya mission Tarhuni had worked on with Medical Teams International in the last year.

Questioned about religion
Tarhuni flew from Tripoli to Tunis, but was halted by ticket agents before he could board his flight to the United States. Air France staff had received a directive by email from their Paris headquarters, they said. The mail said to instruct Tarhuni to check in as soon as possible at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis.

At the embassy, an official looked into his case, and told Tarhuni that an unspecified federal agency wanted to interview him.

The official, Mike Sweeney, consul at the embassy, returned a call to msnbc.com to say that he could not discuss the case because of "Privacy Act concerns ... I do not have any Privacy Act waiver to give you any information about (the) case, so unfortunately I cannot give you any information."

So on Jan. 23, according to Tarhuni, he returned for his meeting — held in a bare vault-like room with two FBI agents, one called "Horse" who was said to be from the regional office and another agent, Brian Zinn, from Portland, Ore., and an English-speaking Libyan attorney.

Feds' secret no-fly list more than doubles in a year

After initial questioning about the scope and nature of Tarhuni’s work they began to move into uncomfortable territory, according to Tarhuni’s daughter, Lina, 23, who spoke to msnbc.com from Portland.

"The FBI officials went on questioning my father about religion,” she wrote, in a detailed account provided to msnbc.com. "They asked him where he practiced his religion (place of worship)? Was he a Salafi (a sect of Islam)? Did he interact or communicate with Salafis? Did he interact with mujahideen? Did he practice Shariah law?"

How suspects reach the no-fly list

The question about Shariah law was especially tricky. To Tarhuni, an observant Muslim, Shariah means a set of rules for praying, marrying, parenting and generally conducting a good life, which would be a subject for discussion at any mosque, but not — as some people interpret it — as a set of rigid and punitive rules that Muslims are obliged to impose on others.

Tarhuni said he was cooperative, even though he thought the questions seemed designed to intimidate him or suggest he had some connection with terrorists simply because of his faith.

He even agreed to take a lie-detector test, which was presented as the final step before he was allowed to fly home.  

Muslims often put on no-fly list without explanation

But Tarhuni said that when a third agent, a woman from New York, requested that he sign a document — which turned out to be a waiver of his Miranda rights — he balked.

"When my dad read the paper he realized it was a document to waive his constitutional right, his Miranda rights … he immediately stood up, unhooked the cords attached to him, and claimed he was not going to take the lie detector test and was not going to waive his rights," his daughter said.

Multiple calls to the FBI media section and terrorism screening center that keeps the no-fly list, have have not yet yielded any information about the Tarhuni case.

Boats, trains and cars?
To the extent that he and his lawyers can guess, they believe Tarhuni’s name is on a secret no-fly list administered by the Department of Homeland Security.

Though no one will say if his name is on the list, Tarhuni said he was told by U.S. embassy officials that he can fly home after filing a request in the electronic TRIP system — or Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.

Jamal Tarhuni

Humanitarian volunteer Jamal Tarhuni pictured with his family in Portland, Ore. From left, Lina (22), Nizar (21), Jamal and his wife Nariman Samed, son Rasheed (10) and daughter Lena (15).

According to its website, the TRIP system is designed for people "who have been denied or delayed airline boarding; have been denied or delayed entry into or exit from the U.S. at a port of entry or border crossing; or have been repeatedly referred to additional (secondary) screening can file an inquiry to seek redress."

However, Portland attorney Tom Nelson, who is advising Tarhuni and has two other clients on the no-fly list, advises against filing in the TRIP system.

"Once you trigger the TRIP process, you affect your legal rights to challenge the actions of the FBI in court," said Nelson.

Alternatively, Tarhuni has been informed that he can make the 5,000-mile return trip by other means of transportation — boats, trains, cars.

He is scheduled to fly out of Tunis, accompanied by Nelson, on Feb. 13. He is not planning to file for a redress number through the TRIP system.

"I don’t know what the FBI reaction will be,” said Tarhuni. "They could try to detain me or arrest me at the airport. I am ready for them. I have a constitutional right that I will protect and demand … The FBI was absolutely wrong, and they caused a lot of pain and inconvenience to me and my family."

Msnbc.com is pursuing more information from the the FBI and the State Department, as well as from members of Jamal Tarhuni’s Portland community. We will be updating his story as information emerges.

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