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Feds used child porn ruse to build case against firm suspected of illegal trade with Iran

In October 2012, Idin Rafiee was getting ready to board a flight from San Diego to London when a federal agent came up beside him and told him all his electronic devices were going to be detained.

Laptop, iPad, cellphone, external hard drive — all would be taken from him, the Customs and Border Patrol agent said. The reason: The agent suspected there was child pornography on the devices.

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FOR THE RECORD

May 18, 6:35 p.m.: An earlier version of this article was incorrectly accompanied by a photo of the Pasha Automotive Services terminal at the Port of San Diego. Pasha Automotive Services is a different company than Pasha International and is not involved with the federal case.

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Rafiee wasn't told what that suspicion was based on, but all his electronics were seized that night, though he was allowed to continue on to London.

One week after the encounter at the airport, and after agents had thoroughly copied the electronic data, Rafiee's devices were returned to him. He never heard about child pornography again.

More than three years later, it turns out the suspicion wasn't based on anything. It was a ruse, designed to conceal what agents were really after: evidence that Rafiee and the company he founded with his father, Hassan — Pasha International — was selling goods to Iran in violation of sanctions barring trade with that country.

In February 2014, the Rafiees, their company and a third man, Majid Nouri, were indicted by a San Diego federal grand jury on charges that they evaded the sanctions by selling nearly $8 million worth of air conditioning products to Iran. Emails and other information captured from the computers played a crucial role in developing the case, court records say.

At the time, the arrest was seen as another example of the U.S cracking down on the illegal trade with Iran that was undercutting the sanctions designed to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear program.

On Friday, the case against the Rafiees and their company quietly came to a close. The corporation pleaded guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to export materials to an embargoed country.

That same charge against the Rafiees and Nouri was dismissed, ending the case. The corporation also was  ordered to forfeit $874,940 to the government.

Prosecutors didn't say why the charges against the men were dropped, though defense lawyers had vigorously challenged in pretrial hearings whether the evidence from the electronic devices was collected legally.

Those challenges dealt not with the deception about child pornography suspicions but with whether there was "reasonable suspicion" to believe that the Rafiees and their company were engaged in illegal trade in the first place.

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The child pornography approach is, according to testimony from Department of Homeland Security investigation agent Kevin Hamako, not unusual.

The case had begun with a phone call to a Homeland Security tip line from a salesman based in Florida who said he worked for Pasha. He said he suspected it was a "front company" for selling goods to Iran.

Agents researched Pasha and the Rafiees, finding that Hassan Rafiee had traveled to Iran several times since 2003. The father and son also had bank accounts that had received wire transfers of $600,000 from Dubai, Kuwait, and Turkey in 2010 and 2011. Dubai is known as a transfer point for products from the U.S. to Iran, court records say.

While the law protects citizens from warrantless searches, that constitutional protection is lessened for searches done at borders, for people either entering or exiting the country. Defense lawyers argued even under that relaxed standard, agents did not have enough reasonable suspicion to launch an investigation and seize the computers under a “disingenuous” story of looking for child pornography.

Prosecutors said that other evidence, including the wire transfers, justified the move. The issue was never fully resolved — no formal ruling was made by U.S. District Court Judge Janis Sammartino — before the case ended.

greg.moran@sduniontribune.com

Moran writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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