Karim Christian Kamal, a citizen of France, says he has fought for years to expose French corruption and a pedophile ring that ensnared his daughter.
French authorities call Kamal a liar who kidnapped his daughter and brought her to his home in Santa Monica illegally. U.S. immigration authorities say Kamal ought to be sent back to France.
But a tentative ruling by an immigration judge in Los Angeles has stunned authorities in both countries. The ruling--expected to be made formal next week--granted Kamal political asylum and harshly criticized the French justice system.
The ruling, which was handed down in December but only released this month, was unusual. Western Europeans rarely win political asylum, which is reserved for people who can show past persecution or a "well-founded fear" of persecution if they return home. It is a claim even refugees from repressive regimes have great difficulty winning.
"The French government's persecution has strong elements of personal revenge and vendetta," stated the immigration judge, Ronald N. Ohata, who concluded that France wrongfully convicted Kamal to punish him for attempting to expose judicial corruption. "It is pure abuse of power from individuals who are in control, and who are connected, against people who they feel are not."
The ruling was so shocking in France--a nation whose leaders boast of a centuries-long tradition of respect for human rights--that Le Monde, an influential French daily, promoted the story today on its front page.. Inside, the newspaper ran a caricature of a French judge with "Wanted"--written in English--emblazoned beneath the mock mug shot.
Kamal alleged that while he and his family lived in France, his ex-wife involved their daughter in a child sex ring patronized by judges and police officers in the French Riviera city of Nice. The charges became a cause celebre in France when first aired publicly five years ago. The French government initially pursued slander cases against several newspapers that published the pedophile accusations, accusing them of maligning the judiciary.
Remi Marechaux, a spokesman at the French Embassy in Washington, said Paris had no immediate comment. U.S. officials likewise declined comment on the decision or a possible appeal of the unusual grant of asylum.
Kamal, 39, who said he imports pearls to the U.S. from the French Polynesian island of Bora Bora, expressed mixed sentiments. He said he was gratified by the decision, but deeply distressed that the acrimonious legal battle has blocked him for seven years from seeing his daughter, Lauriane, now 12 and living in France with his ex-wife.
"This order makes me happy in one way," Kamal said outside the downtown Los Angeles office tower where Thursday's immigration hearing was held. "But it also makes me sad, because Lauriane should be here."
Accompanying him was his sister and lawyer, Dalila Kamal-Griffin, a U.S. citizen and Santa Monica-based attorney well versed in the French legal system. She, like other family members, has likewise been charged in France with malicious prosecution, which could bring a five-year prison term.
In his ruling, Ohata agreed with Kamal's contention that he was targeted because he is of Moroccan descent.
"In this case you have a family that is being persecuted," Ohata said in his ruling, which was made available to Kamal only two weeks ago. "And it is an Arab family. And it is a family that has become whistle-blowers."
At the core of the complex, almost decade-long saga is a bitter custody battle that pitted Kamal against his ex-wife, Marie-Pierre Guyot. Her father, a former magistrate in France's highest court, committed suicide in 1990 for reasons that remain unclear. According to Kamal, her father's death contributed to the unraveling of the marriage.
The couple began divorce proceedings in 1991, when Lauriane was 2. As the case became more and more rancorous, the dispute became public and spread to include allegations of child abuse.
Kamal, a former sales manager for a pharmaceutical firm in France, has charged that Guyot threatened him and used her connections to have him harassed by police and block access to his daughter.
Guyot has denied any wrongdoing. She has accused Kamal of violence against her, of kidnapping Lauriane and of failing to pay child support. Kamal denies the charges.
In what he called an act of near desperation, Kamal said he came to the United States with his daughter in April 1994 and sought political asylum for himself and the girl.
It was here, Kamal said, that a psychologist examined his daughter and heard her descriptions of pedophilia. The girl told the psychologist she had been abused by, among others, police and prosecutors in Nice, according to court papers.
Two months later, French officials, and the girl's mother and maternal grandmother--accompanied by two Santa Monica detectives--entered Kamal's home to take the girl back. Kamal called the act a kidnapping. (A federal court later ruled that Santa Monica police, who had no warrants, were right to return the girl to her mother. But the court said the officers had entered the home illegally.)
The Kamal family quickly secured federal and state court orders barring the girl's return to France. The FBI even ordered Lauriane off an Air France plane bound for Paris at Los Angeles International Airport. The family eventually took her back to France via Mexico.
Kamal has remained in the United States ever since. He was convicted in absentia in France of abduction and malicious prosecution.
In his decision, the immigration judge denounced as "reprehensible" the French government's role in orchestrating the girl's return to France. Ohata noted that, at the time of her return, experts in both the United States and France had already concluded she was at risk of abuse.
The judge ruled that Kamal qualified as a whistle-blower and a political refugee because of his exposure of corruption in the French judicial process. "There is no recourse for him to avoid going to prison on what are essentially trumped-up charges and violations of due process by the French judiciary," Ohata said in his oral ruling, which was tape-recorded.
The judge left the bench after the ruling and is now a Justice Department lawyer in suburban Washington. The case has been assigned to another judge for final ruling.