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The owner of two Buffalo grocery stores has filed a discrimination lawsuit, claiming that Charter One Bank has threatened to shut down all his bank accounts because he is an Arab-American.

Erie County Judge Eugene M. Fahey this week issued a temporary restraining order, preventing the bank from closing the accounts of Ali K. Saleh, at least until a hearing on Dec. 14.

Saleh, 48, said he believes ethnic discrimination is behind the bank's plans to close his accounts, because bank officials refuse to tell him their reasons.

"Everyone I talk to at the bank tells me the same thing -- the decision was made by higher-ups," said Saleh, who owns stores on William Street and Walden Avenue. "I am a citizen of this country, and I love this country. There is no reason to treat me this way."

A Charter One spokeswoman, Sylvia Bronner, assured The Buffalo News that the bank's actions were not discriminatory, but said she could not disclose why the bank no longer wants Saleh as a customer.

"I want to assure you, it has nothing to do with discrimination," Bronner said. "We don't disclose information to the public about customer accounts. My information is that Mr. Saleh is aware why the accounts are being closed."

Saleh, a married father of four who lives in Orchard Park, insisted that he does not know why the bank is closing his accounts.

Born in Yemen, he has been an American resident for 30 years and an American citizen since 1980. He and a business partner, Hamood Yafay, operate the Community Food & Meat Market on Walden, and the Towne Gardens IGA Supermarket on William Street. Saleh said he has done business with Charter One for more than four years.

"I have a $265,000 loan with Charter One, and I'm current on the payments. I have six checking accounts with them, and I haven't had any problems that should cause them to close down my accounts," Saleh said.

Saleh and his lawyer, civil rights attorney David G. Jay, said he is aware of several local Arab-American business people whose bank accounts have been suddenly closed, without explanation.

Dr. Khalid Qazi, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York, said he has also received complaints, and is concerned about them.

According to court papers, Charter One sent Saleh a one-page letter on Oct. 29, advising him that the bank no longer wished to service his accounts, and telling him to "cease any further activity" on the accounts within two weeks. The bank later granted Saleh a one-week extension, and then gave an additional extension by virtue of Fahey's restraining order.

In court papers, Jay alleged that Charter One is discriminating against Saleh because the bank has become "infected" with anti-Muslim sentiment that Jay claims has swept the country since Sept. 11, 2001.

"I think the banks are going crazy in Western New York, punishing Arab-Americans," Jay said. "I think they're either doing it at the direction of the government, or to try to win favor with the government."

Saleh does not allege that anyone associated with the bank ever made racist remarks to him, or that any bank official ever told him the bank is trying to eliminate Arab-American customers.

Saleh said he is a law-abiding citizen and he does not believe he is under investigation by any law enforcement agency.

"I cried on 9/1 1, especially when I heard Muslims were involved," he said. "All I can tell you is, this is happening to other Arab-American businessmen in this community, and other banks are also doing it. The other people I've talked to do not want to go public."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews,com

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