Raising the Stakes
Rae Alafyouny, with a photo of Mahmoud: ‘If there was anything, they would have found it.’
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Mahmoud Alafyouny’s case is drawing attention that the feds are trying to fend off.
By DAN MALONE
The case of a Mesquite man accused by the federal government of supporting terrorism is heating up — on both sides. Federal prosecutors are increasing their efforts to deport Mahmoud Alafyouny — and to keep him under wraps until they can do so — while at the same time his story has caught the attention of national civil-rights and Arab-American groups as well as a network news program.
Alafyouny, who is married to a Department of Homeland Security screener at Dallas’ Love Field, has been detained for the past 20 months at a West Texas prison while immigration officials have attempted to deport him. Last week, Alafyouny’s lawyer, Joshua Turin, asked a federal judge to release his client, saying the accusation that he is dangerous is “nothing short of a cruel and pathetic lie.’’
The government responded to Alafyouny’s latest bid for freedom, however, by announcing it would attempt to speed up his deportation and by bringing in a U.S. Justice Department attorney from Washington who specializes in immigration-related terrorism cases to lead that effort.
Alafyouny’s plight was first reported by Fort Worth Weekly last July. The government’s case against him seems to hinge on a single, decades-old accusation — that as a teen-ager in Jordan 20 years ago he collected money and distributed handbills for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The PLO or the Palestinian Authority have, according to Alafyouny’s lawsuit and a recent Wall Street Journal article, received hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid from the very government that is now trying to deport him.
Yet Alafyouny’s actions — under an obscure provision of the USA PATRIOT Act — are, according to the government, sufficient grounds on which to keep him locked up until it can toss him out of the country.
An official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) informed Alafyouny in writing on Jan. 19 that the agency had “an obligation to protect the community from ... the threat of violence’’ and that Alafyouny’s “support for an organization that utilized and promoted terrorist violence leads me to believe that your release may pose a threat to the United States.’’
Alafyouny came to the United States on a business visa in 1996, applied for political asylum in 1997, and was ordered deported in 1998. He subsequently married an American citizen, Rae Johnson, and the couple has been fighting his deportation ever since. He was arrested in the spring of 2004 after losing an appeal and has been imprisoned since then at the Rolling Plains Detention Center in Haskell.
In a strange twist, the government’s case against Alafyouny is based on evidence that he voluntarily disclosed when he applied for political asylum, telling U.S, immigration officials that he feared persecution in Jordan because he had raised money for the PLO.
In a telephone conference among the attorneys, Turin said that Douglas E. Ginsburg, the Justice Department’s terrorist-case specialist, revealed that the government is planning to ask the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (where Alafyouny’s appeal is being considered) to permit immigration officials to deport him before ruling on the merits of his case.
The government’s refusal to release Alafyouny raises questions about whether officials might know something Alafyouny’s family and supporters do not. If they do, however, they’re not talking about it.
Ginsburg referred questions about the case to another Justice Department official, Charles S. Miller, who said this week he could not answer questions because of ongoing litigation. Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for ICE in Dallas, declined comment on the same grounds.
Alafyouny’s attorney, meanwhile, questions why the government would detain him now after letting him remain free for seven years. In court papers, Turin said that immigration officials “never alleged that Alafyouny was dangerous during his many-years-old deportation proceedings; there is no, zero evidence in his voluminous administrative record or elsewhere that he is dangerous. He has no criminal history He has never failed to appear for an interview or hearing.’’
The Weekly’s initial story about Alafyouny generated interest among several civil-rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, which commissioned a documentary, Beyond the Patriot Act, about Alafyouny’s plight. The program was originally broadcast on Link TV last year.
Judy Rabinovitz, of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project in New York, said Alafyouny’s detention “is a graphic example of how, in our pursuit of terrorists, we’ve swept common sense under the rug, as well as due process.
“No one denies that this country has a right to enact laws that keep out terrorists,” she added. “But this law ... is so broad that it encompasses people like Mr. Alafyouny who are indisputably not terrorists and pose no danger to our national security.”
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee also rallied behind Alafyouny. “This is a person who, to our knowledge, has no criminal history and has been a completely lawful person in the United States,’’ said the league’s Kareem Shora. “He has not engaged in anything even nearing suspicious behavior. There is absolutely no reason for this person to be continually held in detention from the information we have.”
Aside from the fact that he doesn’t believe Alafyouny is a danger to anyone, Turin also argued in court papers that he should be released because his continued detention is working a hardship on his family. The loss of Alafyouny’s income led his wife to file for bankruptcy and forced a stepson to put college plans on hold. Two younger stepchildren are having trouble in school, a development that Turin blames on Alafyouny’s forced absence from their lives.
Alafyouny’s wife, whose day job as an airline security screener for the federal Transportation Security Administration puts her on the front line of the domestic war on terror, said she’s been unable to get a straight answer from anyone about why her husband can’t be released while his case is on appeal. If the government knows something about her husband that she doesn’t, she said, they should reveal it or let him go.
“They’re trying to turn this into something that it’s not,” Rae Alafyouny said. “I could never believe that he could do anything to anybody. He’s so gentle and kind — he’s just not capable of that.’’ Besides, she said, the government has thoroughly investigated his background and found nothing. “They ran fingerprint checks on him. If there was anything, they would have found it.”
Alafyouny’s case has also caught the attention of the CBS Evening News. Jason Sickles, a producer in the network’s Dallas office, said immigration officials have twice refused his request to interview Alafyouny. Sickles said ICE spokesman Rusnok told him “they could not facilitate an interview with an inmate who is involved in ongoing litigation.’’ Sickles said he asked ICE to reconsider the decision. “I explained to them that Mr. Alafyouny wants to talk,” Sickles said. “His family indicated that he wants to talk. We explained that other media have been able to talk to him in the past.’’
ICE, however, would not budge. A second ICE official, who responded to his request for reconsideration, came back with the “same explanation as the first,’’ Sickles said. “They said they can’t or won’t facilitate an interview with someone who has ongoing litigation.”
Alafyouny is allowed to make collect calls from the privately run prison — and Sickles said he plans to interview him by phone. “We’re disappointed we can’t talk to him on camera. It’s our medium, and it’s important to be able to see a person.’’ ICE’s refusal to let him meet with Alafyouny face to face, he said, “is not going to keep us from doing the story.’’
Why ICE would refuse to let a network news producer interview Alafyouny after having permitted two reporters from the Weekly to meet with him last year is not clear. Rabinovitz believes the government is afraid of the exposure a CBS news story would bring to the case.
“Virtually everyone who is detained by [federal immigration authorities] is involved in ‘litigation’ challenging their removal orders. If that was a sufficient basis to deny a face-to-face interview, then such interviews would never be allowed,” she said. “The government is not allowed to selectively decide when to grant or deny press access. Seems to me that the government denied CBS access because it recognizes that if the public were to actually see Mr. Alafyouny on television and hear him speak, it would be obvious that he poses no risk to anyone, and they would be shocked at what our government is doing under the guise of protecting us against terrorism.”
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