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Flashpoints USA with Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill Photo: Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill
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Sacrifices of Security - 7.15.03
In Focus  :  Profiling  :  The Evansville 8 Transcript
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Flashpoints USA with Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill is an innovative public affairs series from PBS that brings together both compelling examinations of critical issues and a dynamic pairing of two of the most respected names in journalism.


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The Evansville 8
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Gwen Ifill takes an in-depth look at the fallout from the wrongful detention of eight Egyptian men from Evansville, Indiana held as part of a terrorism investigation just weeks after the September 11 attacks.

Gwen Ifill:
Another one of the questions we asked in our nationwide survey is: Would you turn in a neighbor or relative to law enforcement if you thought it might prevent a terrorist attack?

More than 80-percent responded yes…

Seems reasonable…

But, in one Southern Indiana community, that question took on new meaning in the days after 9-11, when actually ratting on a neighbor turned these lives upside down.

Carolyn Baugh:
We tried to stop speaking Arabic in public and, you know.

Ifill:
Really?

Baugh:
Yeah. It was…

Ifill:
Why is that?

Baugh:
…nerve-wracking. We felt like we were drawing negative attention.

Ifill:
The negative attention would become much worse. Carolyn Baugh is part of the small Islamic community in Evansville Indiana. Just days after September 11th, the FBI interviewed her husband, Tarek Albasti, a naturalized American citizen born in Egypt. They own the Crazy Tomato, an Italian restaurant along a retail strip in town. One October night Tarek called Carolyn at home - the FBI was back.

Baugh:
It was around eight o'clock, maybe, seven-thirty - he said that they're - they were there - "they" were there, and they wanted to ask 'im a few more questions, and so maybe he would be a little late coming home.

And then around maybe ten-thirty that evening, he called and said he wasn't coming home.

Tarek Albasti:
The supervisor of the FBI, he called all of us. That's when I saw the rest of the guys - in another room. And he just told us that - the good news that everybody has been really great and everything, but the bad news that there is a warrant for our arrest as a material witness.

Baugh:
Up until then, I assumed that, you know, it was all a mistake, and it would just be - it could be undone as easily as it had been done. But then it just - it got far more scary.

Ifill:
Evansville had become a focal point in the war against terror. The FBI was tipped that Albasti and eight others - all of them Muslim, all from Egypt - were part of a plot to fly a plane into the Sears tower in Chicago.

As it turns out, Tarek Albasti had been taking flying lessons but they were a gift from his father-in-law a pilot.

Fitzgerald:
When the Evansville matter first came to light - a concern that there was a terrorist plot involving Chicago - the most important thing was to get to the bottom of it quickly.

Ifill:
Prosecutors got a court order to arrest eight of the nine as material witnesses. Wearing striped prison jumpsuits, shackled hand and foot, they were taken to Chicago, to the federal detention center. No one could find them - not their lawyers, not their wives. Tarek Albasti was terrified.

Baugh:
He was - he was banging on the inside of his cell, saying, "Please, somebody, talk to me." And his lawyer couldn't even find him. They told him that he wasn't there. So, being an American citizen, then, means nothing. Means nothing.

Ifill:
The Chicago lockup is a long way from Egypt, where Carolyn, an Arabic studies graduate from Duke, met Tarek, who was on the rowing team at the American University of Cairo. They fell in love, and got married - twice. Once in Cairo, and again, with Carolyn's family in attendance, when they moved to the U.S.

Eventually, they wound up in Evansville, at the restaurant.

Tarek brought friends from the rowing team to work there.

The couple started a new family in the house where Carolyn grew up.

But Tarek's American citizenship cut no ice in Chicago.

Ken Cunniff, his attorney, was not allowed to see him for four days.

Ken Cunniff:
The bottom line of all of it was that this man, who had done everything right in his life, was put in a position where he didn't even know if he was g- -- w- -- he had no clue as to what the final part of his existence was. And when I did talk to him and informed him the government said, "This is a potential capital case," he was truly destroyed.

Ifill:
Did you think they were just going to lock you up and throw away the key?

Albasti:
To be honest, whenever we were in Chicago, we thought, "They gonna just kill us." We were just going to be just hanged or something for something we didn't know even what - what we did.

Ifill:
Eight men, all from Egypt, all connected to Tarek; Tarek taking flying lessons.

Baugh:
I think a lot of my time with the investigators in Chicago had to do with dispelling some of those coincidences.

Cunniff:
He had not been allowed to contact his family. He didn't really know why he was there.

Baugh:
They needed to arrest somebody - didn't they? You know. So, if we've got that many fishy-looking things, then there must be some stinking fish.

Ifill:
But Tarek's lawyer knew the prosecutor, and trusted him.

Cunniff:
If it were any other prosecutor, I probably would never have allowed my client to talk, and my client would still be in custody.

Dean Polales:
We all jointly agreed that we would conduct the investigation with the FBI, and we'd do it by interviews. And they made their clients available. We interviewed family members and relatives, we sought information from foreign countries.

Ifill:
Eventually, all the men were released. The tip was bogus.

Polales:
These individuals did not have any information related to a terrorist plot directed at Chicago.

Ifill:
But the story didn't end there for Tarek. When he returned from a visit to Cairo last year, his name popped up on a warning list at Kennedy International Airport. He was delayed by Immigration officials for five hours.

So, a year and a half after their release, Thomas Fuentes, the chief FBI agent in Indiana, took the extraordinary step of apologizing to the men.

Thomas Fuentes:
That apology was that they had to endure what happened, and that they had been put through that.

Baugh:
Tom Fuentes did an incredibly human thing in - in going to the lengths that he did to make the apology public.

Ifill:
And last month, Tarek and Carolyn got word the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago had taken the highly unusual additional step of asking a federal judge to expunge - or completely wipe out - the records of the Evansville arrests.

Fitzgerald:
If I were a state trooper somewhere and it came up on the computer and I saw that, that would make me treat someone I pulled over for speeding a bit differently.

Ifill:
Tarek and Carolyn are grateful for the apologies. But they want their lives back.

Albasti:
There is lotsa stuff worse that this happened to lots of people. So I would say we were just lucky that we got out of this whole thing just fine.

Baugh:
I didn't have my orifices searched, and I wasn't shackled, and - you know? I - I - I didn't go through that. I'm very eager to, just put it to rest; and to thank the men who - who got it done quickly, and to urge God speed to those in positions of power who have the lives of innocent men in their hands.



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