Two Yemeni-American immigrants with an ice cream truck have filed a civil rights complaint alleging that Hamtramck Police arrested them without cause after falsely accusing them of insurance fraud, jailing them for two days without food, water, and medicine.
“They put me (in) jail, but I didn’t do anything wrong,” Mohamed Wassel, 24, of Hamtramck, told the Free Press on Monday. “They don’t like Arabs, that’s why.”
The complaint was filed last week with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights by attorneys with the Arab American Civil Rights League in Dearborn. It says that in March, the Wassels were arrested and put in jail for two days after police falsely accused them of having fake insurance for their ice cream truck, which had an expired license plate. After police verified the insurance was legitimate, they were released and not charged with any crime.
“I feel scared,” Wassel said of his time in jail. “It was shocking.”
Nabih Ayad, founder of the group, said what happened to Wassel is part of a pattern of Arab Americans and Bangladeshi Americans being harassed by police in Hamtramck because of their background.
“We’ve had numerous complaints about Hamtramck Police and the way they treat the Yemeni and Bangladeshi communities,” Ayad said. “He’s just trying to make a living and to lock him up for two days while they’re alleging the insurance documents was fake is absolutely absurd.”
Hamtramck Police Chief Anne Moise did not return a message left Monday afternoon.
Hamtrack’s population is diverse, with Yemeni-Americans the biggest ethnic group, at 24% of the population, and Bangladeshis making up 15-19% of the population. Overall, Muslims make up about half of the population, say community leaders. In January, Hamtramck’s city council became Muslim-majority.
But there are no Yemeni Americans, Bangladeshi Americans, or Muslim Americans on the police department.
“A city’s police department should reflect the diversity of the people of the city,” Ayad said. “That’s one of the major problems.”
According to the complaint, the incident started on or about March 16, when Wassel received a letter from the city saying he could not park it near his house. The license plate on the truck had expired, which Wassel said they did not realize because they had not received “a notice that it was time to renew,” said the complaint.
The truck was then towed, impounded and the license plate removed.
“That same day, my brother Mohamed and I went to get new license plate to present at the police station to retrieve the vehicle,” said the complaint. “The truck had been insured since it was purchased and the insurance was still valid. After getting the plate, my brother and I went to the Hamtramck Police Station and showed the license plate and proof of insurance. At the time, the police chief was present, and she told me to come back the next day with additional proof and documentation.”
But the next day, they said, they encountered hostile officers. One officer at the window “threatened that if we presented fake insurance, he would arrest us,” said the complaint. When it was their turn, they were accused of having fake insurance.
“He immediately arrested me while my brother was on the phone with my father, who attempting to convince the officer that it was valid insurance,” said the complaint. “As a result, my brother Mohamed was arrested, too. This officer arrested us and accused of insurance fraud … My father was aware of our arrest and came himself to the police station and brought with him with the two insurance agents, named Eric and Richard, who sold us the insurance. They tried to convince the officer that the insurance was valid and showed proof. The officers refused to believe the agents.”
Mohamed Wasel said he was denied his asthma inhaler while he was jail. They said that police also confiscated their phones, preventing Mohamed from calling his employer to tell him he wouldn’t be able to work that day.
The complaint said “the officers were unnecessarily aggressive with us and continued to accuse me of having fake documents and laughed at me and humiliated me. We were not even offered anything to drink for two days. We were later released after the officers verified the insurance was not fraudulent. We were given no release paperwork or documentation of the incident upon our release.”
Wasel said Monday he and his brother filed the complaints, because “I want them to stop doing this to Arab people. We are Americans, we pay taxes.”
Rula Aoun, director at the Arab American Civil Rights League, said “it was an unnecessary detainment. There was no reason to treat these gentleman in the way they were…the humiliation is unnecessary. … It was an abuse of power.”
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