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Eye On Boise

US Attorney Wendy Olson: ‘Ensure the civil rights of all faiths’

U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson (Betsy Z. Russell)
U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson (Betsy Z. Russell)

U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson is in Pocatello this afternoon, where she’s holding a press conference and meeting with Muslim, Arab and other international students at Idaho State University in Pocatello to discuss federal hate crimes and civil rights statutes that protect “persons of all races, religions and national origins.” A recent New York Times article highlighted tension about Middle Eastern students there, and last week someone from outside the area distributed DVDs of anti-Muslim propaganda on car windshields in campus housing areas, prompting concerns from law enforcement, a local human rights group and ISU officials. ISU President Arthur Vailas said in a letter to the campus community that 50 Kuwaiti and Saudi students had been victims of off-campus home burglaries over several weeks, in which “personal documents were stolen and hateful and hurtful messages were left behind.” ISU has more than 1,000 Kuwaiti and Saudi students; those countries are reportedly moving to suspend their government scholarships for students to attend ISU. 

“In the aftermath of terrible acts of terrorism both in the United States and abroad, many Muslim Americans – and those perceived to be Muslim – have suffered a backlash of harassment, intimidation, violence and discrimination,” Olson said in a statement. “These acts of retaliation eat away at our social fabric by calling into question our commitment to our own Constitution, laws and values.  The Department of Justice is committed to working with communities of all faiths to protect and ensure the civil rights of all faiths.”

 Her visit to ISU today is part of a national effort that includes 14 events around the country in the next week to address backlash against Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian Americans following the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. Olson co-chairs a national Department of Justice subcommittee spearheading the effort, in which U.S. Attorneys in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio and Utah are working with community leaders and law enforcement “to address discrimination, violence and harassment targeting people because of what they look like, which country they come from or where they worship.”

The Department of Justice said in the last several months, people who are, or are perceived to be, Muslim, Arab, Sikh or South Asian have been targeted for harassment and violence around the country. Incidents have been reported in, among others, Connecticut, Florida, Missouri and New York. The department also has investigated multiple cases of communities targeting or discriminating against Muslims in their zoning practices, to prevent construction of mosques.

Since the 9/11 attacks, the Department of Justice reports that it has investigated more than 1,000 incidents involving acts of violence, threats assaults, vandalisms and arsons targeting actual or perceived Arabs, Muslims, Sikhs or South Asians. The Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorneys offices have prosecuted more than 60 defendants, with 57 convictions to date.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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