Imam Mohammad Qatanani, center with the microphone. He was spied on by the NYPD and NJ state police (Photo: Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger)
Aref Assaf, president of the American Arab Forum, insists he knew all along that New Jersey police were complicit in the New York Police Department’s program of spying on Muslim communities in the state. But it’s only in the past few months that concrete proof of the NJ state police’s knowledge and cooperation with at least part of the spying has emerged.
A July 10 report by Hannan Adely in The Record, a newspaper based in Northern Jersey, has brought renewed attention to the New Jersey police’s role in the NYPD surveillance program. Adely reports that while “New Jersey law enforcement leaders have denied knowing about widespread surveillance of Muslims by New York City detectives…state police agencies were involved in at least one joint effort.”
That joint effort was surveilling the Islamic Center of Passaic County with an “informant at the mosque.” The surveillance targeted the mosque’s imam, Mohammad Qatanani, a Palestinian who has been fighting the US government’s effort to deport him since 2006. Qatanani continues to have close links with law enforcement officials in the state, though he told The Record that “it was very upsetting for us, especially when our mosque is maybe the most open mosque for all law enforcement and elected and appointed officials.”
“All along, we have always felt that law enforcement at different levels–local, regional, state and national–is present amongst our mosques,” said Assaf, who is also close to Qatanani and is a spokesperson for an organization fighting against the government’s deportation effort. But this report and police documents published in March on the muckraking website NYPD Confidential confirmed it.
The documents run counter to what the NJ state police have said to Assaf and other Muslim activists: that they were not spying on Muslims in New Jersey with the NYPD. The Associated Press has also reported that Newark police knew of and cooperated with the NYPD’s surveillance.
“Our friends in the different law enforcement agencies, all along, have assured us that they are not spying on us,” said Assaf. “They have not told us the whole truth.”
Qatanani’s mosque had been spied on by an NYPD “Demographics Unit” officer since at least 2006, according to one police document published by Leonard Levitt at NYPD Confidential, which also notes that another member of the “Demographics Unit” was covering the Islamic Center of Jersey City. Both of those mosques also had New Jersey police officials keeping tabs, according to the document.
Another police document (pdf) shows that in 2008, the NYPD and NJ state police surveilled a rally in support of Qatanani.
Qatanani had come to the US in 1996 and applied for permanent residency, but in 2006 US immigration officials began deportation proceedings because Qatanani had failed to say that he was arrested by the Israeli military on his application. Qatanani and his supporters say he was only detained, and not arrested, by the Israeli military and faced no charges, though he was imprisoned for 3 months. Israel claimed the imam had ties to Hamas.
In 2008, an immigration judge ruled that Qatanani could stay in the United States. During the deportation proceedings, Qatanani took to the stand and described how Israeli authorities had tortured him.
The US has appealed the immigration judge’s decision, and the next hearing for Qatanani is set for November 26.
The renewed attention on NJ police cooperation with the NYPD comes about two months after the NJ attorney general said that the NYPD did nothing illegal in their operations in the state. Assaf and others rejected that finding, and Assaf is also demanding that the attorney general investigate further and determine the full scope of the NJ police’s complicity with the spying. More information could come out as a result of a recent lawsuit filed in New Jersey federal court against the NYPD.
“This community feels deceived,” said Assaf. “We don’t have a strong voice in government or among elected officials.”