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ACLU Seeks Freedom for Muslim Accused of Ties to Terrorists

Times Staff Writer

Civil rights lawyers asked a federal judge Thursday to free a Buena Park man who has been jailed for a year after Homeland Security officials accused him of having ties to terrorism.

The American Civil Liberties Union petitioned U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on behalf of Abdel-Jabbar Hamdan, who was prosecuted for being in the United States illegally. An immigration judge this year ordered him deported and refused to grant him bail while he appealed, on grounds that he was a threat to national security.

The 17-page petition says “there is not one shred of evidence in support of the government’s argument that Hamdan poses a danger to national security.” It calls his continued detention arbitrary, unlawful and capricious.

Hamdan’s case has been a rallying cry for critics of the Bush administration’s practice of using allegations of terrorism as grounds to arrest Muslims. In many cases, the suspects are never charged with terrorist crimes but instead are prosecuted for immigration law violations.

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Hamdan, 44, worked as a fundraiser for the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity shut down by U.S. officials in December 2001 after it was accused of supporting Hamas, which was designated a Palestinian terrorist organization in 1997. The foundation’s president, chairman and director of endowments also were arrested July 27 and charged with terrorism-related crimes. They are awaiting trial but were released on their own recognizance after a federal judge ruled the government had failed to prove they were flight risks and a threat to national security.

“The government cannot justify its decision to detain Hamdan while releasing [foundation] executives who it conceded were more knowledgeable about and responsible for [the group’s] activities,” said the petition written by ACLU lawyer Ranjana Natarajan. Her writ also said Hamdan was not involved in the distribution of funds he collected for the charity and that U.S. officials “never even attempted to prove Hamdan raised funds with the intent to further terrorist activity.”

Lori Haley, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Laguna Niguel, said an immigration court ruled that Hamdan “should have known that his activities constituted material support for a terrorist organization.”

She also defended the government’s tactics in the case. “We’re going to use every tool at our disposal to safeguard our country and prevent individuals from obtaining funds here to advance the aim of terrorist organizations,” Haley said.

Homeland Security officials said Hamdan had been living in the U.S. illegally on a student visa issued more than 25 years ago. Yet the agency working to deport Hamdan -- Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- continued issuing him annual work permits, according to the petition. At the time of Hamdan’s arrest, agency officials were reviewing his application for permanent U.S. residency.

According to the petition, on the day of his arrest Hamdan was taken to a government office in Santa Ana where immigration officials held a “spontaneous and unscheduled interview” for his permanent residency application and denied the request. In May, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services overturned the denial on grounds that Hamdan had been improperly notified by the agency of its “intent to deny” his application, the petition says.

Further complicating the case, U.S. Immigration Judge D.D. Sitgraves, who ordered Hamdan deported and held without bond, also blocked the government’s attempt to return him to his native Jordan, where he was born in a Palestinian refugee camp. Sitgraves ruled that Hamdan might be persecuted or tortured if returned to Jordan, a U.S. ally in the war on terror.

Immigration experts say third-party countries are reluctant to accept someone who has been branded as a terrorism supporter by the U.S.

Immigration officials this year were forced to free four Iranian brothers from Los Angeles after keeping them locked up more than three years. The Mirmehdi brothers were accused of supporting a terrorist group and being national security threats but instead were prosecuted on immigration charges. They were ordered deported, but their deportations to Iran were blocked by immigration judges.

They were subsequently freed when U.S. officials could not find a third country to accept them, though two of the men remained under deportation orders and the other two were appealing them.

Hamdan, an engineering graduate of USC, is president of the Anaheim mosque West Coast Islamic Society and a leader in the Southern California Islamic community. He is the father of six U.S.-born children ranging in age from 8 to 21. Yaman Hamdan, who is the oldest and a pre-law student at Chapman University, said the entire family visited her father four days a week at the immigration detention facility at Terminal Island.

“They squeeze us into a glass room barely bigger than a telephone booth. My dad sits behind a glass wall. When we leave, the whole room is fogged up,” she said. “We feel like we’re all in jail. None of us wants to leave the house” for fear of missing his calls.

Entesar Hamdan, principal at a private Islamic school, said she would accompany her husband if he was deported but would let her children decide whether to go or stay.

“I am a foreigner, but these are American-born kids. They can hardly speak Arabic. How are they going to fit in an Arab country? We are an American family who happens to be Muslim,” said Hamdan, a Palestinian like her husband.

She said her family was devastated by the government’s accusation that her husband was a terrorism supporter. But the family has survived with help from the Islamic community and her neighbors, none of whom are Muslim, she said.

“What’s the easiest accusation you can make against a person in this country?” she asked.

“Terrorist,” answered her son, Albara, 11.


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