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'You damn Taliban!'

Lawsuit: Supervisors targeted Decatur cop because he was Muslim

Before new police officers are qualified to make arrests, their supervising officer shoots pepper spray into their face. Part of the reason they do this is so arresting officers understand what their subjects are going through.

It's also a kind of induction ritual for grunts, and it usually brings out a crowd.

When it was Mohamed Hyath's turn to get dosed for his initiation into the Decatur police force in July 2002, a couple dozen police officers and firemen were there to watch.

His supervisor, Lt. W.S. Richards, called Hyath, a Muslim of Mauritian origin, to step forward. Hyath did, and he was hit with bursts of pepper spray for three to five seconds.

After that, Richards said to Hyath, "That's what you get for bombing us, you damn Taliban!" according to a lawsuit Hyath has filed against the city of Decatur, Richards and two other police officers.

Hyath is suing the city and his former supervisors for harassing him because of his religion, race and national origin. The lawsuit, filed April 26 in Atlanta U.S. District Court, states his supervisor repeatedly called him "a Taliban." And they ridiculed him, the lawsuit states, for not eating pork, an Islamic custom, and because some Muslim women cover themselves.

Muslims across the country experienced 1,019 incidents of alleged discrimination, violence and racial harassment in 2003 — a 70 percent increase over the previous year — according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The increase, and the kind of persecution Hyath endured, is linked to the wars in Iraq, and the Sept. 11 attacks, according to CAIR. America is waging a war against terrorism; in some American minds, that equates to a war against Muslims.

The study says that, of the incidents aimed at Muslims, 93 were hate crimes and 163 were job-related discriminations.

Hyath, who grew up in Stone Mountain, only lasted seven months on the Decatur force. He said in a phone interview last week that he'd noticed an air of hostility there, directed at him, since he started working there in April 2002.

A couple of weeks after the pepper spray incident, Hyath walked into a roll call meeting to find that every officer in the room was cracking up over a wanted poster that Richards allegedly had made.

It was Hyath's face, cut and pasted on an image of Saud A.S. Al-Rasheed, a suspect in the Sept. 11 hijackings.

Hyath repeatedly asked his supervisors to stop the harassment, but they told him to deal with it. Others officers commiserated with him.

"Everybody who I would talk to in private, they would all say, 'Of course it's not acceptable,'" Hyath said.

The final straw came when he complained about the harassment to a supervisor and was met with even more scorn. Hyath said the supervisor told him, "It doesn't matter what you think, and we're are going to keep on doing this."

After Hyath quit, the state Department of Labor determined that he was entitled to his benefits, a decision the city appealed, but lost. Hyath now volunteers with the police department in Cumming and lives in Suwanee.

A spokesman for the Decatur police referred Creative Loafing to City Manager Peggy Merriss.

"Our internal investigation indicated some of his allegations were true and the officers were disciplined for that behavior, but he resigned before we were able to conclude that investigation, and in fact, we had asked him to stay," Merriss said. "He was a fine officer and we had hoped he would stay and be a contributing part of our department.

"Right now, our next step is we forward it on to our labor attorney and we'll proceed as we need to," Merriss said.

Hyath's suit doesn't mention a dollar amount. He said he'll leave that to the jury: "I have faith in our court system, but at one point I didn't based on having to endure all this from police officers. Of all people, police officers should be respecting people and obeying the law, not breaking it."

Michael.wall@creativeloafing.com