Cyrus Kar’s family says he left his Los Feliz apartment for Iraq to make a documentary film about a Persian king who wrote the world’s first charter of human rights. But now they fear he may never get home.
On May 17, Kar was stopped at a Baghdad checkpoint in a taxi allegedly packed with a common component for improvised explosive devices, according to a Defense Department spokesman. Since then, he has been in U.S. military detention outside Baghdad.
Kar’s family says the detention is a mistake. Kar, 44, a U.S. citizen and Navy veteran who was born in Iran and came here during his childhood, is a patriotic American who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, they said Tuesday. He has not been charged with a crime, the Defense Department spokesman confirmed.
“A search of the vehicle the men were traveling in revealed a large number of washing machine timers, a device frequently used to make improvised explosive devices,” said the Pentagon spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Pentagon official said Kar would have a hearing to determine “whether he is a security threat, involved in the insurgency, has committed a crime or is found innocent after a thorough investigation.... In that environment, where you have frequent suicide bombings and frequent improvised explosive devices going off, one can understand the need to be extremely cautious any time you come across anyone with components that could be used to make IEDS.”
Kar’s relatives say they cannot understand why authorities won’t let him go, because they say Los Angeles FBI Agent John D. Wilson told them weeks ago that Kar’s story had checked out, that he had passed a government polygraph test and that he had been cleared of any charges.
They say Wilson told them that the cameraman and the taxi driver also had been cleared.
During an interview Tuesday, Kar’s aunt, Parvin Modarress, and his cousin Shahrzad Folger played a voicemail they said Wilson left at their home weeks ago. On it the voice says Kar is “in custody. He’s fine. It’s just that we’re trying to get his release.... Be patient.”
Wilson acknowledged in a brief telephone conversation Tuesday that he had met with the women but said he could not speak further.
Cathy Viray, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles FBI office, said she could not comment on the matter.
Today, the frustrated relatives, who say they have not been able to get answers from any U.S. government agency, plan to file a federal lawsuit in Washington challenging Kar’s continued confinement in Iraq.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and other civil liberties lawyers are representing Kar, Modarress and Folger against President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army Maj. William H. Brandenburg, overseer of military detention operations in Baghdad.
Mark D. Rosenbaum, the ACLU’s Southern California legal director, said the suit seeks Kar’s release on a writ of habeas corpus, the legal vehicle used in this country since its inception to seek release of an individual illegally confined by authorities.
“Mr. Kar is now imprisoned by the United States military in Iraq without the slightest hint of legal authority,” Rosenbaum said. “His arbitrary military detention is unaccompanied by any charge, any warrant, any writ or any process. So far as either the civilian or the military court system is concerned, Mr. Kar has simply disappeared into detention without a trace.”
According to a draft of the lawsuit, Kar has lived in the U.S. since he was 9. He attended high school in San Jose, served in the U.S. Navy for years, eventually attaining the rank of petty officer third class.
He attended San Jose State, where he received an undergraduate degree in marketing, worked in the computer industry in Silicon Valley and in the mid-1900s received a master’s degree in technology management from Pepperdine University.
He occasionally taught business courses for an online university.
About three years ago, Kar became interested in the history of ancient Persia, particularly the story of King Cyrus the Great, founder of Persia. He went to Iraq, over his family’s objections, to film near Baghdad. He also filmed in Iran, Tajikistan, Turkey and Afghanistan and consulted with scholars.
David Stronach, professor of Near Eastern archeology at UC Berkeley, has signed a sworn declaration to be filed with the lawsuit, stating that he has known Kar for more than two years and has “assisted him in making his documentary” about Cyrus the Great, whom he described as “one of history’s most extraordinary figures.”
Stronach said Cyrus “is mentioned many times in the Bible, not least because he liberated the captive Jewish community in Babylon -- an event that allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, rebuild the temple, and arguably, provide the conditions that permitted the birth of Christianity.
“It is impossible to tell the story of Cyrus without bringing in the subject of Babylon, his latest and greatest conquest, and one which had quite exceptional consequences. It is therefore unsurprising to me that Cyrus Kar thought it essential to go to Babylon -- in present-day Iraq -- to finish filming his documentary.”
The relatives said they learned of Kar’s detention when he called them May 24 from Iraq, saying he was in custody because of a misunderstanding involving a taxi driver who had been driving Kar and his cameraman Farshid Faraji around Baghdad.
By the time of his last phone call June 28, Kar had grown increasingly angry, they said.
“I’m angry,” Modarress said in an interview Tuesday. “We live in a country where everyone is supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. But here they presume he’s guilty and, even when he’s proven innocent, they still hold him.”
Kar’s relatives said he told them he had done nothing wrong and asked them to give the keys to his apartment to the FBI so agents could conduct a search.
By the time they contacted the agency, the FBI already had searched the apartment, according to Modarress and Folger.
On Tuesday, the aunt and cousin showed a reporter the apartment, which they said looked much as it did when he left the U.S. earlier this year to film in the Middle East.
The apartment is filled with family photos, pictures of Kar in his Navy uniform, a photo of Kar’s pet bunny posing in front of an American flag and silver plates commemorating Cyrus the Great.
A large American flag hangs over Kar’s bed.
In his office are several manila envelopes marked “Evidence” that the FBI used to return belongings seized in the search, relatives said.
Their suit will contend that Kar’s continued incarceration at Camp Cropper, near Baghdad International Airport, violates his rights under the 5th and 6th amendments, the federal Non-Detention Act, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and customary international law.
Rosenbaum said the suit would cite a 2004 Supreme Court decision that even an enemy combatant captured abroad must be afforded judicial process to contest the validity of his detention.
“It would turn our system of checks and balances on its head to suggest that a citizen could not make his way to court with a challenge to the factual basis for his detention by his government, simply because the executive [branch] opposes making available such a suspension,” the high court said in Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld.
Folger, a USC graduate who works at a Los Angeles business, said she had argued with him over his support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “Cyrus felt that changing Iraq to a democracy would be the best thing for the Iraqi people and for the Middle East as a whole and that in regard to his foreign policy President Bush was doing a good job,” she said. “I know that Cyrus is just a loyal, patriotic American veteran working on a documentary.”