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Meeting Targets New Wave of Hate

Law Enforcers Asked for Help to Stop Crimes Against Muslims and Those of Middle Eastern Descent

More than 200 Arab-Americans, Muslims and others of Middle Eastern descent attended a town meeting Saturday night seeking to allay fears that they will be racially profiled, hassled by police and targeted in hate crimes.

Three top Central Florida law-enforcement officials promised their help, protection and security tips.

And they asked for trust and assistance from those residents -- many of them American citizens -- to help combat terrorism and the backlash of hate crimes that has followed.

Two sides alienated since the Sept. 11 hijackings of four jetliners -- three of which struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon -- came together to share concerns Saturday night at a town meeting sponsored by the Arab American Community Center, American Muslim Alliance, Islamic Center of Orlando and other groups.

"We can't do our work without your help," said Bruce Fairburn, Florida Department of Law Enforcement violent-crime supervisor. "Please don't look at us as the enemy."

U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Gov. Jeb Bush issued directives to their respective police agencies that hate crimes will be a top priority. Civil-rights groups have reported at least three slayings and dozens of assaults, harassment and threats against Arab- Americans, Muslims and others nationwide.

Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary said there have been only a few incidents, including a drive-by shooting in which a Pakistani motorist had the back window of his car shot out Oct. 2 on State Road 417.

"It's not time to hide," Beary told the crowd. "It's time to report those incidents."

But those remarks brought anger from the motorist, an Orlando computer-software engineer who stood up and complained that he was not satisfied with the investigation by Beary's office and the FBI.

" They missed my daughter by this much," he said, holding his hands a foot apart. He asked that his name not be identified for fear of his family's safety. Authorities said they would look into the matter again.

Bill Hajeski, head of the Orlando FBI office, told the crowd that his agency has opened 140 hate-related investigations nationwide in the past month, including eight in Central Florida.

" Unfortunately, this whole incident is bringing out so many screwballs. They're feeding off this," Hajeski said.

Hajeski also promised residents that Arab-Americans and Muslims were not being targeted by authorities.

He said the 50-agent, 15-agency task force investigating terrorism locally has run down 900 leads, most of which haven't panned out. Up to 1,000 more were discarded because of obviously wrong information or identities provided to authorities, he said.

Orlando defense attorney Mark NeJame, a Lebanese-American, said he and two other attorneys are offering free services to Middle Easterners who need assistance dealing with issues relating to the terrorism or hate-crimes investigations.

" It's important for us to put our best foot forward," NeJame said.

Some members of Orlando's Arab-American community were glad to hear from Central Florida's top law enforcers.

" There was an understanding between us and the law-enforcement community," said Jesse Maali, an Orlando businessman. "It was an opportunity to address our civil rights and our concerns."

Copyright © 2001, Orlando Sentinel

Source: Orlando Sentinel

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