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18 Years Waiting for a Gavel to Fall

A group of Palestinians have been in legal and personal limbo for nearly two decades as the U.S. has sought to deport them. Their case foreshadowed post-9/11 policy.

June 29, 2005|Peter H. King | Times Staff Writer

On a rain-soaked Saturday afternoon nearly two decades ago, a handful of young Palestinians gathered at the Glendale Civic Auditorium to prepare for an evening fundraiser. The event -- a night of ethnic food, folk dances and political speeches delivered in Arabic -- would be attended by an estimated 1,200 men, women and children, most of them immigrants from the Middle East.

It had been promoted as a festival to celebrate the 18th anniversary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist-oriented faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The underlying purpose, organizers said, was to generate donations for "the homeland," in particular to provide medical care and schooling in Palestinian refugee camps.

"People," the crowd would be reminded that night in the call for contributions, "the revolution will not continue, and the march to Palestine will not go on, with words alone."

The preparations seemed fairly unremarkable. Posters were taped to walls. Palestinian magazines, including copies of a PFLP publication, Al Hadaf, were arranged on tables. A troupe of amateur dancers practiced a folk dance known as the dabka.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 01, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 64 words Type of Material: Correction
The L.A. 8 -- A time chart that accompanied an article in Wednesday's Section A about a long-running terrorism case known as that of the L.A. 8 made reference to a "Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine fundraiser." Whether money raised at the 1986 event went to the Popular Front organization is a matter of dispute and the central issue in the case.

Before the rehearsal, one dancer removed the American flag from its standard on the stage and leaned it against a back wall in the wings. This did not pass unnoticed.

Earlier that day, FBI Special Agent Frank H. Knight had hidden himself inside an engineering booth outfitted with a window that overlooked the auditorium. He would remain at his post deep into the night, snapping rolls of pictures, recording snippets of the speeches and narrating what he saw into a tape recorder.

For three years Knight had been tracking a number of these Palestinians, suspecting they were agents of the PFLP, an organization with a mixed record of social good works, military operations and terrorist strikes. Unable to convince FBI headquarters that he had evidence of illegal activities, Knight had come to Glendale with a new plan.

He brought with him an agent from the Immigration and Naturalization Service: If he could not prosecute the Palestinians, perhaps he could have them deported.

Knight did not speak Arabic, and many of his conclusions about that Saturday, Feb. 15, 1986, would be based on intuition. He reported, for example, that the music, speeches and "general mood" all "sounded militaristic." He thought it suspicious that some men in an opening procession were dressed in khaki shirts and camouflage trousers.

"This would not be a normal attire for obtaining cash for orphans," Knight surmised. "It is one to get cash for guns."

And although he could not read the posters, the agent noticed that some depicted people holding AK-47 assault rifles. This led him to conclude, three minutes into his narration, that "it is obvious that this fundraiser has nothing to do with building hospitals or schools. It is solely for raising money for terrorist activities."

Finally, there was the business of the American flag. Not only had it been removed before the program, Knight would report, the banner was never returned to its standard. Years later, Knight was pressed in a deposition to explain why he considered this relevant.

Certainly moving a flag off the stage did not constitute a criminal act, did it?

"I've been to other events, and the American flag usually stays in the standard. With this group -- the PFLP, they removed the American flag.... And it makes a statement.... "

"What kind of statement?"

"An observation," Knight responded. "They treat the flag the way they would treat the enemy. And, so, it wouldn't be a part of their event."

The revolutionary rhetoric and perceived slights to the flag, the "martial" music and posters, the khaki clothing -- all of these in time would be presented as evidence of seditious inclinations, part of the government's brief in a pioneering attempt to deport seven Palestinian men and the wife of one of them, a Kenyan.

The "L.A. 8," they would be called.

This is the story of their case. It is a case that has rattled around the courts now, incredibly, for 18 years, and yet remains unresolved. It is also a case that foreshadowed what was to come for many Arab and Muslim immigrants in America years later, in the aftermath of terror.


Long before Sept. 11, 2001, and President Bush's subsequent declaration of a "war on terror," long before the Patriot Act and the proactive tactics it licensed, back in a time when the difficult question of how to root out potential terrorists without trampling on civil rights seemed more academic than immediate, there was the case of the L.A. 8.

Since January 1987, when the eight were arrested, the case has bounced from immigration court, through federal district courts, up to the U.S. Supreme Court and back again, with side visits to individual immigration status hearings. Along the way, it tested legal questions that would loom large after Sept. 11.

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