Man back in US af­ter re­ver­sal of de­por­ta­tion

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY MATTHEW BARAKAT As­so­ci­ated Press

A north­ern Vir­ginia man who says he fears tor­ture at the hands of Is­raeli au­thor­i­ties is back in the U.S. af­ter a judge’s or­der forced im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties to re­verse his de­por­ta­tion and bring him back from Is­rael be­fore he ever got off the plane.

Ab­del­haleem Ashqar re­cently served 11 years in prison for refusing to tes­tify to a grand jury in­ves­ti­gat­ing the Pales­tinian mil­i­tant group Ha­mas. In 2005, he ran to suc­ceed Yasser Arafat as pres­i­dent of the Pales­tinian Na­tional Au­thor­ity, all while con­fined to his Alexan­dria home on house ar­rest as he awaited trial. He fin­ished fourth in a field of seven.

Ac­cord­ing to court papers and in­ter­views, U.S. au­thor­i­ties ar­rested Ashqar on Tues­day and quickly de­ported him on a char­tered flight af­ter mis­lead­ing him about his need to re­port to an im­mi­gra­tion of­fice to process pa­per­work.

By Thurs­day, though, Ashqar, 60, was back in the U.S. He’s now at a de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity in Bowl­ing Green, Vir­ginia, as his case awaits an ex­pe­dited rul­ing from the 4th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals in Rich­mond.

The turn­around fol­lowed a late-night emer­gency hear­ing Tues­day in fed­eral court in which the judge in­quired about turn­ing around the plane car­ry­ing Ashqar mid-flight.

Ul­ti­mately, though, the plane landed in Is­rael, where U.S. of­fi­cials say they planned to make arrangemen­ts to turn him over to Pales­tinian au­thor­i­ties.

But de­por­ta­tions to Pales­tinian ter­ri­tory must be con­ducted through Is­rael, said Ashqar’s im­mi­gra­tion lawyer, Pa­trick Tau­rel. So Is­rael could ei­ther in­ter­cept and in­ter­ro­gate Ashqar be­fore hand­ing him over to the Pales­tini­ans, or the Pales­tini­ans might simply hand Ashqar over to the Is­raelis, Tau­rel said.

Ashqar, who was born in the Pales­tinian West Bank and came to the U.S. in 1989 on a tem­po­rary visa to study at the Univer­sity of Mis­sis­sippi, has a cred­i­ble fear of tor­ture at the hands of Is­rael, Tau­rel said. Ashqar says he was im­pris­oned and beaten by Is­raeli in­ter­roga­tors in the 1980s af­ter protest­ing the Is­raeli oc­cu­pa­tion of the West Bank.

Af­ter the hear­ing, U.S. District Judge T.S. El­lis III is­sued a rul­ing in which he largely said he had no au­thor­ity to in­ter­vene in the de­por­ta­tion. He did say, though, he was con­cerned that Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment was not car­ry­ing out the de­por­ta­tion prop­erly. Ashqar’s re­moval or­der spec­i­fies he be de­ported to Jor­dan, so El­lis barred im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials from turn­ing Ashqar over to Is­raeli au­thor­i­ties in any way.

In do­ing so, he stated in a foot­note that his rul­ing “must not be con­strued in any way as ac­cept­ing as true pe­ti­tioner’s (Ashqar’s) claim that he was tor­tured by Is­raeli of­fi­cials in the past and that he has a bona fide fear that he will be tor­tured.”

ICE of­fi­cials is­sued a state­ment Satur­day say­ing the bureau fully com­plied with El­lis’ or­der. The state­ment said of­fi­cers re­turned Ashqar to the U.S. Thurs­day be­cause they were “pro­hib­ited from ex­e­cut­ing the re­moval if Ashqar was de­liv­ered to Is­raeli au­thor­i­ties.”

The U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice for the Eastern District of Vir­ginia, which is de­fend­ing the gov­ern­ment’s ac­tions in court, de­clined com­ment Satur­day.

Tau­rel said au­thor­i­ties can’t de­port Ashqar to Jor­dan be­cause the Jor­da­ni­ans won’t ac­cept him. In­deed, Tau­rel said records in one of Ashqar’s court pro­ceed­ings show that then-Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Kirst­jen Nielsen raised the is­sue directly to her Jor­da­nian coun­ter­parts to no avail.

Tau­rel ex­pressed frus­tra­tion about the way in which the de­por­ta­tion was con­ducted. He said ICE agents will of­ten con­duct de­por­ta­tions unan­nounced when peo­ple make reg­u­lar check-ins at im­mi­gra­tion of­fices. But he said this is the first time that a client was de­ported af­ter he had re­ceived ex­plicit as­sur­ances that would not oc­cur.

Ashqar’s fam­ily said they ac­com­pa­nied him to the im­mi­gra­tion of­fice in Fair­fax on Tues­day when he was de­ported. His wife, As­maa, said agents as­sured her ev­ery­thing was fine even as they took him away in hand­cuffs. She said she waited four hours be­fore an agent came out and told her her hus­band had been de­ported and was go­ing to Is­rael.

“It’s like a movie. It’s un­be­liev­able,” she said.

Af­ter he fin­ished serv­ing his prison sen­tence, Ashqar spent an­other 18 months in im­mi­gra­tion cus­tody as of­fi­cials looked for a way to de­port him. He was fi­nally re­leased in De­cem­ber af­ter his lawyers suc­cess­fully pe­ti­tioned to get him out. Dur­ing the five months he was free, As­maa said, “he didn’t like to leave the house. He wanted to just stay home with us.”

Ashqar’s son, Ah­mad Mo­hammed, likened his fa­ther’s de­por­ta­tion to a kid­nap­ping. He said the fam­ily was able to speak to him by phone af­ter he was brought back to the U.S.

“He’s hang­ing in there,” he said. “He’s think­ing about us more than he’s think­ing about him­self.”

Ha­mas is­sued a state­ment Thurs­day con­demn­ing the de­por­ta­tion and hold­ing the U.S. ac­count­able for his treat­ment.

The state­ment said Ashqar “is a na­tional icon who is known for his sense of na­tion­al­ism and loy­alty for his peo­ple. … In­deed, all the Pales­tinian peo­ple are proud of him.”

An email seeking com­ment from the Is­raeli Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton was not im­me­di­ately re­turned Satur­day.

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS AP

Ab­del­haleem Ashqar, left, with his wife, As­maa, right, meets re­porters on Feb. 16, 2004, in Wash­ing­ton. Ashqar, who says he fears tor­ture at the hands of Is­raeli au­thor­i­ties, is back in the U.S. af­ter a judge’s or­der forced im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties to re­verse his de­por­ta­tion.

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