US Immigration: The detention & murder of Hassiba Belbachir

Don’t forget about me

An innocent young Muslim is detained by US authorities in the “War on Terror”. The young person is held captive for several weeks without any charges. Then the young person is purposely segregated from other captives, and while alone and frightened in a jail cell, the young person is killed by the person’s captors.

This is a true story. It happened quite recently. The ordeal began in early March 2005 and culminated in the young person’s death on March 17, 2005. It was not at the infamous prisons at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. It was not in one of the rendition centers in the Middle East. It was not in an Israeli or Russian prison. Was it at Abu Ghraib? No. Or Guantanamo Bay? Not there either. It happened in McHenry County, Illinois.

On March 17, 2005, a 28 year-old Muslim woman named Hassiba Belbachir died mysteriously at the McHenry County Jail while in the custody of the US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

What We Know

Very little is known about how Hassiba died. The government is treating Hassiba’s death as a suicide case. They notified the family, released the body and closed the case. The mainstream, English-language media dutifully reported on Hassiba’s death exactly according to the government’s script.

The following are additional facts. These facts were obtained from Hassiba’s family. We know is that Hassiba lived in Illinois. She was traveling to Europe earlier this year and was detained by British authorities while passing through Heathrow International Airport. She was turned over to the US Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) which transported her back to Illinois and incarcerated her at the McHenry County Jail.

We also know that Hassiba was initially held with other immigration detainees, and that at some point she was transferred to a cell by herself. Hassiba was in good spirits on the morning of March 17, 2005 when she spoke to her sister over the telephone. Hassiba promised to try calling her sister again later that day. She never spoke to anyone in her family again. She died sometime later that day.

We know that the government claims Hassiba committed suicide. The government claims that she was being held in a cell by herself because she was deemed a suicide risk. They say she strangled herself to death with her nylons while standing or lying on the ground.

We know that Hassiba’s body revealed lacerations and bruises on her arms and legs. After Hassiba’s death, her sister was detained by Canadian and US authorities while enroute to Illinois to recover her sister’s body. Ultimately there was a delay of several days before a family member was allowed to actually see Hassiba’s corpse.

Who Is Responsible

Hassiba Belbachir died violently while in the custody of local and federal authorities. Her captors are responsible and must be held accountable.

Hassiba did not die of natural causes. She was killed. The only question is who killed her.

The government claims that she had been in a jail cell alone on the day of her death. As such, none of the other prisoners at McHenry County Jail should have had access to Hassiba while she was in her jail cell. This rules out any independent acts by the other prisoners of the facility.

The government’s claim of suicide is highly questionable. Several medical doctors with whom I have consulted opined that it is impossible for a person to choke herself to death in the manner described by the government. A person who tried to choke herself to death would lose consciousness before dying. Once unconscious the body would automatically resume breathing.

If Hassiba was not killed by other prisoners and she did not kill herself, then who could it have been? The only people who had access to Hassiba were the government employees of McHenry County and I.C.E. The answer is simply a matter of connecting the dots.

A Conspiracy to Cover-Up Hassiba’s Murder?

Given the government’s dubious and ultimately cavalier treatment of Hassiba’s violent death, and coupled with the implausibility of its “official cause of death” ruling, it is easy to suspect a cover-up. The fact that no local, state or federal official has called for an investigation of Hassiba’s violent death simply adds further credibility to the conspiracy theory.

The motivation for a cover-up is obvious. There is a very negative perception of the United States in the Muslim world. Within the American-Muslim community there is a deep distrust of the US government. A murder scandal such as this would be disastrous for US relations with the Muslim world abroad and with its domestic Muslim population.

News that government authorities jailed and killed an innocent young Muslim woman would impact the general American public as well. It is one thing to detain and “interrogate” bearded, dark-skinned men in far away lands, but to mete out the such treatment to an innocent young Muslim woman in the heart of America ‘s Heartland is something that would certainly raise the ire of the masses.

The government knows hope apathetic and scared the American Muslim community is after 9/11. After all, the government has been privy to, care of The PATRIOT Act, telephone conversations, emails, financial records and speeches in mosques, Islamic centers and private homes of Muslims from coast to coast. This apathy, coupled with the potential backlash from news of a heinous killing of an innocent young Muslim woman, would have made it easy for those responsible for Hassiba’s death to opt for a cover-up.

Exposing the Cover-Up

If American Muslims remain silent about Hassiba’s violent death, then her suffering and tragic death will be forgotten and the government’s gamble at a cover-up will have paid off. The cover-up must be exposed. Finding the truth can only come about through the loud, organized, multifaceted activism, protest and legal action by the American Muslim community, and within this community the leadership falls to the American Muslims from the greater Chicagoland area from which Hassiba came and where she died.

The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago (CIOGC) has already begun working with Hassiba’s family. With the assistance of CIOGC Chairman Abdul Malik Mujahid, the family has found a private law firm to pursue legal recourse against Hassiba’s captors and killers. The CIOGC is also accepting donations from the public to help defray the legal expenses.

This is not enough. In addition to the legal proceedings, there must also be an organized effort to educate elected and appoint officials in every level of government involved in Hassiba’s detention and death. This includes officials in McHenry County, the State of Illinois, Congress and the White House. This can be done through an organized letter writing campaign which demands answers and accountability for Hassiba’s violent and tragic death.

Hassiba’s death is a tragedy not only for Muslims, but also for all people of conscience. As such, efforts must be made to educate the general public. This can be accomplished through letters to newspapers, op-ed pieces, and the dissemination of information about Hassiba’s death and all the events leading up to and subsequent to her death via the internet.

Hassiba is not the first person to suffer at the hands of jailers. Prisoner abuse is pervasive in the United States. Hassiba’s death should be a call to action to seek justice for all prisoners who are abused. To this end, the American Muslim community can reach out to other communities that have historically been targeted for prison abuse as well as those groups and communities that have been battling on this issue long before Hassiba’s detention and death.

Of course none of these efforts are possible unless American Muslims are first mobilized in this cause. As wonderful and great as the internet is, standing alone, it is insufficient to rally the American Muslim community. To engage the largest number of American Muslims in this effort the mosques and Islamic centers must use the Friday prayer sermons to tell this tragic story and to call their co-religionists to action.

Hassiba’s murder is an injustice. The media’s silence is an injustice. The government’s cover-up is an injustice. If the American Muslim community fails to take up this important issue, then it too will be guilty of an injustice.

Junaid M. Afeef is a Research Associate at the Institute for Social Policy & Understanding. His articles are available at He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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