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Final two L.A. 8 defendants cleared

Times Staff Writer

Ending a controversial 20-year campaign to expel immigrants because of their ties to alleged Palestinian terrorists, the federal government has agreed to drop attempts to deport the final two defendants in the L.A. 8 case.

The Board of Immigration Appeals on Tuesday dismissed all charges against Khader M. Hamide and Michel I. Shehadeh, who had faced deportation proceedings since 1987, and approved a settlement submitted by the men’s lawyers and the Department of Homeland Security, according to documents made public Wednesday.

The case, which placed seven Palestinian men and a Kenyan woman in legal and personal limbo for more than two decades, foreshadowed government efforts after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to ferret out potentially dangerous Muslim militants in the U.S.

But Hamide, Shehadeh and the other defendants were never charged with an act of terrorism or with any other crime. Rather, they were accused of supporting the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a radical offshoot of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which has taken credit for car bombings and airline hijackings in the Middle East.

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Specifically, the government targeted the eight immigrants’ efforts to distribute Al Hadaf, the Popular Front’s magazine, a publication available in public libraries, on college campuses and even at the U.S. Library of Congress.

The immigrants asserted that they were being persecuted for lawful political activities: assisting Palestinians with human rights and medical needs; raising money for hospitals, youth clubs and day-care centers; and participating in demonstrations. The L.A. 8, as the defendants were dubbed, became a symbol for critics, who considered the case emblematic of misguided and overly zealous attempts by the government to deport pro-Palestinian activists.

“After thorough analysis and investigation, the United States government has no information indicating that Khader Musa Hamide and Michel Ibrahim Shehadeh currently pose a threat to national security,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a prepared statement.

“The government reasonably believed at the time these men were charged they were a threat because of their membership in a terrorist organization,” California spokeswoman Virginia Kice said.

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Hamide and Shehadeh said they were relieved that the government’s long pursuit of them was over.

“My family and I feel a tremendous amount of relief,” said Hamide, 52, after learning of the appeal board’s decision. “After 20 years, the nightmare is finally over. I feel vindicated at long last,” said the Chino Hills resident, who is in the coffee distribution business. “This is a victory not only for the L.A. 8 but for the 1st Amendment of the Constitution and for the rights of all immigrants.”

Shehadeh, who is 50 and now lives in Oregon, said that although he was “extremely happy” to put the battle behind him, he had mixed emotions. “The government robbed us, and our families, of the best and most productive years of our lives. But we will continue . . . acting on our beliefs, loving our country and defending the Constitution,” he said.

The government’s decision to drop charges against Hamide and Shehadeh was “a victory for the 1st Amendment rights of all immigrants and a vindication of their clients’ actions,” the attorneys for the L.A. 8 said in a formal statement.

“This is a monumental victory . . . for all immigrants who want to be able to express their political views and support the lawful activities of organizations in their home countries fighting for social or political change,” said San Francisco attorney Marc Van Der Hout of the National Lawyers Guild, who has worked on the case since its inception. The government’s attempt to deport Hamide and Shehadeh “all these years marks another shameful period in our government’s history of targeting certain groups of immigrants for their political beliefs and activities.”

Georgetown University law professor David Cole, who also represented the two men for 20 years on behalf of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said, “We are overjoyed for our clients, who have spent 20 years fighting for the right to stay in this country and associate freely.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California also played an active role in representing the men over the last two decades. ACLU attorney Ahilan Arulanantham said, “We are gratified that the government has decided to terminate this case and to spend its resources on genuine threats to national security.”

The government’s decision to throw in the towel came nine months after Bruce J. Einhorn, a federal immigration judge in Los Angeles, lambasted federal officials for violating the men’s rights. Einhorn accused the government of a “gross failure” to comply with instructions to turn over to the men “potentially exculpatory and other relevant information.”

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In a blistering opinion, Einhorn said the government’s conduct in the case was “an embarrassment to the rule of law” that left “a festering wound on” Hamide and Shehadeh, who have been in legal and personal limbo for more than two decades.

Initially, the government appealed Einhorn’s ruling. But negotiations soon started, leading to the settlement.

Legal action began Jan. 26, 1987, when agents of the FBI and the immigration service took into custody the seven men and one woman, all Southern California residents, charging them with affiliation with a group that advocates “the doctrines of world communism,” which was then a deportable offense under the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952.

The other members of the group were Julie Mungai, the Kenyan wife of Khader Hamide; Bashar Amer; Aiad Barakat; Amjad Obeid; Ayman Obeid; and Naim Sharif. Early on, the government focused its efforts on Hamide and Shehadeh, the only members of the group with permanent resident status.

Beginning with government concern about possible terrorism at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, agents surveilled the eight immigrants over a three-year period, including at a 1986 festival at Glendale Civic Auditorium -- a night of ethnic food, folk dances and political speeches delivered in Arabic -- attended by an estimated 1,200 men, women and children, to celebrate the 18th anniversary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

Years later, both sides entered into a court stipulation that the Popular Front had “engaged in terrorist activities,” but the stipulation also acknowledged that the organization provided day-care, healthcare and other social services to Palestinian refugees from the Mideast turmoil.

Three weeks after their arrest, on Feb. 17, 1987, all eight were released after an immigration judge refused to consider secret evidence that the government offered in support of its request to hold them without bail.

Two months later, then-FBI Director William Webster testified at a congressional hearing that the agency had investigated the eight because they were suspected of ties to the Popular Front. He acknowledged that the agency had found no evidence of criminal or terrorist activity and said that “if these individuals had been United States citizens, there would not have been a basis for their arrest.”

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Congress repealed the McCarran-Walter Act in 1990, replacing it with a new statute making it a deportable offense to “engage in terrorist activity.”

In the ensuing years, the immigrants won a number of key court decisions. In 1995, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the government’s contention that immigrants were not entitled to the same 1st Amendment protections as U.S. citizens. That decision also held that the use of secret evidence could not be squared with fundamental principles of due process.

Three years later, the 9th Circuit ruled that the Constitution does not permit “guilt by association.” Consequently, the court said the deportation of Hamide and Shehadeh could not go forward unless the government proved that the men intended to support the “illegal group goals of the PFLP.” The Supreme Court reversed that decision the next year.

In June 2001, though, Einhorn granted Hamide and Shehadeh’s request to dismiss the case, holding that a change in deportation law could not be applied retroactively.

In October 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act, which expanded the grounds for deportation to include giving “material support” to terrorist organizations.

The Board of Immigration Appeals sent the case back to Einhorn in June 2002. Einhorn eventually dismissed the case in January, setting the stage for dismissal of the charges.

As part of the pact, the government specifically agreed not to charge either Hamide or Shehadeh as “removable, deportable, excludable or inadmissible, or bring any other type of proceedings to expel” either of them or take away their lawful permanent resident status “based on any affiliations, associations, information or conduct in any way connected with any organizations that were identified or described in any testimony” or any other legal document in the case or based on any statement they made.

In exchange, the two men agreed not to apply for citizenship for three years.

The settlement also states that Hamide and Shehadeh could be subject to deportation or to having their permanent resident status revoked if, in the future, they violated any provision of the Immigration and Naturalization Act.

Moreover, the two men agreed to have several court orders, including Einhorn’s blistering 2007 order, vacated as moot. And they gave up their right to sue any government officials or agencies -- including the Justice Department, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security or Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- for any action taken in the course of this case.

Last year, Barakat, another of the L.A. 8, was sworn in as a U.S. citizen in Los Angeles after a federal judge rejected the government’s assertion that he should be denied citizenship because of his political associations. Three other members of the L.A. 8 have obtained permanent residency. One member of the group is still seeking that status, and another, Amer, has returned to the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

henry.weinstein@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Background

Here are major points in the L.A. 8 case, along with key events related to U.S. policy:

* 1983: FBI special agent Frank H. Knight begins tracking L.A. Palestinians.

* 1984: FBI refuses Knight’s official investigation request.

Summer Olympics come to Los Angeles, culminating months of scrutiny of potential terrorism suspects.

* 1987: Khader Musa Hamide; his wife, Julie Mungai; Michel Ibrahim Shehadeh; and five others are arrested.

Immigration Judge Roy Daniel releases all eight pending proceedings.

* 1990: Immigration Act of 1990 replaces McCarthy-era provisions allowing deportation of noncitizen communists.

* 1992: Hamide and Shehadeh begin their first deportation trial.

* 1995: Oklahoma City bombing kills 168 and injures more than 800; anti-terrorism laws are toughened.

* 1996: U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson cites free-speech rights in blocking deportation of the eight.

* 1999: U.S. Supreme Court ruling favors government; case returns to immigration court.

* 2001: Sept. 11 attacks kill nearly 3,000 and lead to passage of the Patriot Act with language that allows the L.A. 8 case to continue.

* 2007: Immigration judge throws out government’s deportation case, calling the government’s conduct in the case “an embarrassment to the rule of law.”

* Tuesday: Government agrees to drop appeal of the dismissal, ending the case.

Sources: Times research, Infoplease.com


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