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FBI Opens Civil Rights Investigations Ninety Cases of Hate Crimes Filed Since Terrorist Hijackings

By Richard A. Serrano
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- WASHINGTON

Despite repeated requests for calm from President Bush and top law enforcement officials, the number of hate crimes directed at Arab Americans has almost doubled from a week ago, and the FBI has formally opened 90 civil rights investigations since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said Thursday that 30 FBI field offices are investigating attacks against members of Arab, Muslim and Sikh communities around the nation.

In addition, local police and state agencies are handling hundreds of other hate-related cases, including slayings in San Gabriel, Calif., Dallas and Mesa, Ariz., as well as numerous shootings, beatings, and incidents in which individuals have been dragged from their cars.

Citing criminal charges filed Wednesday against two white men in Seattle and Salt Lake City, Mueller warned, “These indictments are proof that those who attempt to take out their anger and frustration on innocent Americans will be investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

In Seattle, Patrick Cunningham, 53, was charged with shooting at worshippers and attempting to torch a mosque. In Salt Lake City, James Herrick, 31, was jailed for allegedly setting fire to a Pakistani restaurant. Both crimes occurred two days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The large numbers of attacks against Arabs, Muslims and Sikhs appear to be directly related to the Sept. 11 attacks, which federal authorities say were carried out by 19 men from the Middle East. Traditionally, hate crimes have been targeted against blacks, Latinos, Jews, Asian Americans and American Indians, while people of Arab descent have been subjected to relatively few such attacks, according to federal crime statistics.

Under U.S. statutes, authorities can file federal hate crime charges against individuals who attack others based on their race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity or national origin.

In many of the investigations being conducted by the FBI, authorities are weighing a wide range of possible charges. Mueller said that the federal grand juries in Seattle and Salt Lake City indicted the suspects because they believed that were trying to take violent revenge on Arab communities.

In Seattle, Cunningham was charged with four offenses: obstructing free exercise of religion, attempting to deface religious property, attempting to damage a building and using a gun in a violent crime. He pleaded not guilty.

The religion-related charges each carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison; a conviction on the other charges could add 15 years or more.

Police said Cunningham pointed a gun at two worshippers outside the north Seattle Idriss Mosque, and also doused cars with gasoline.