Muslim Airport Workers Protest in France

PARIS (AP) — One was a security agent once praised for finding a weapon in a piece of luggage, another handled baggage and a third delivered mail. All are practicing Muslims who worked at the main Paris airport – until their security clearance was revoked. They are among 72 people who had security badges taken back – and lost their jobs – over the past 18 months, caught in a campaign by French authorities to guard Charles de Gaulle airport against the risk of terror. The three are among 11 people who have gone to court challenging the loss of their security clearance. A hearing in the case is set for Nov. 10. “What did we do? I want to know,” said Abdelhamid Kalai, who worked as a baggage handler for seven years before being suspended last month. “Sometimes they accuse people because they’re Muslims,” said the 40-year-old father of three, who left his native Algeria in 1992. “We pay for the others.” Daniel Saadat, a lawyer representing four of the former workers, said the case is a stark example of discrimination against innocent Muslims caught up in security fears. Authorities say the situation arises from the need for zero risk at Charles de Gaulle, where 90,000 people work. Security concerns since the Sept. 11 attacks were boosted after British officials in August foiled an alleged plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights. At Orly, the second-largest Paris airport, one or two workers have had their security badges rescinded in the past year, said Yvon Caratero, deputy chief of the Air and Border Police. The office of Jacques Lebrot, deputy prefect responsible for airport security, said 72 airport workers in all had lost security clearance since May 2005, a majority of them for having links to militant Islamic circles. Officials have not released specific details. An Aug. 17 letter reviewed by The Associated Press advised one airport worker at Charles de Gaulle of having an “attitude that could put airport security into question” and “behavior incompatible with obtaining (security) authorization.” An Oct. 5 follow-up letter said the employee’s security clearance was denied due to “elements of behavior and morality.” The decision said the person, who asked not to be identified, “presents a significant danger for airport security.” Saadat, the lawyer, said authorities had been asked for proof of wrongdoing. “So far, we have been shown nothing. The common ground is that they are Muslims.” Herve Bataille, 30, a security agent who converted to Islam 10 years ago, received a commendation letter in March 2005 for finding a weapon in hand luggage at his security checkpoint at Charles de Gaulle. A second letter praised his conduct during an airport visit by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy a month later. Today, he is out of work. Bataille freely talks of traveling to India, Bangladesh and Pakistan and being a member of the Tabligh missionary movement, which started in 1927 in India and is seen today as a potential source of radical Islam. Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight in 2001 with explosives in his shoe, attended mosques run by Tabligh. The French newspaper Le Parisien on Wednesday quoted Lebrot, the deputy prefect, as saying one airport worker who lost security clearance had “continuous contact” with a person “in direct contact with Richard Reid.” Bataille denies any connection to the shoebomber, as does another Tabligh follower, Karim Kherfouche, 29, who lost his security clearance and job loading planes with mail for Chronopost, a French speed mail service. Bataille and others said they were questioned about their religion, how they practiced it, and whether they had made a pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holy site. “If it’s because you put your foot in Pakistan and those countries, then they’re lumping everything together,” said Bataille, who sports a trimmed beard. For Caratero, the police official at Orly, the emphasis is on the “potential danger” a worker represents. Saadat, the lawyer, said no one questions that authorities must ensure airport security. But, he adds, none of the workers who lost their security clearance have been detained for questioning. “If they have something on them, it would be criminal not to follow up,” he said.