Justice On ICE for Iranian Immigrants

Random Lengths News | April 1, 2005
In their Van Nuys home and over a number of varieties of fruits, nuts, and candies from back home in Iran, the Mirmehdis recalled their detention with a bit of wonder and outrage, yet lacking the bitterness others would have felt in their place.

On March 20, Mohammed, Mojtaba, Mostafa and Moshen celebrated the Persian New Year for the first time since 2001, when they were all incarcerated in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks. Just four days earlier they had been hurriedly released from the Terminal Island immigration facility, forced out the door despite refusing to sign their release agreement.

For years the brothers were charged with lying on their political asylum application and providing material support to terrorists—an Iranian opposition group, Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), once praised from the halls of Congress. In August 2004, the terrorism charge was dismissed for lack of evidence, but the government had insisted on draconian release conditions, before abruptly shifting gears without warning.

Prior to their release, the brothers were simply voices on a telephone asking for help, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials refused to allow in-person media interviews. Then ICE released them at 6:15pm on March 16, beseeching them and their attorneys not to contact the media. Sitting in their sparsely furnished living room, the brothers recounted the bizarre experience of being told that if they didn’t leave peacefully, ICE would make them leave by force.

“We found it puzzling. First we were told we would be held until we agreed to their terms. Then we were told we had to leave whether we agreed to the terms or not,” said Moshen.

When the brothers learned they were about to be released, they found that the government had softened its stance on some of the release conditions. Among the original 13 terms the brothers rejected was the ban on travel more than 30 miles from their home without ICE’s permission. The ICE retreated, and asked that they not travel beyond the combined borders of Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange counties. But with travel essential to rebuilding their real estate practice, the brothers were prepared to resume their fight behind Terminal Island’s barbed wire fences to be allowed to travel the length of California. However, ICE was ready to kick the brothers out of the detention facility whether the brothers were ready to sign the terms of release or not––in this case, the brothers did not.

Three months before the 9/11 attacks, the Supreme Court ruled, in Zadvydas vs. Davis, that the government has six months to remove an immigrant once he is ordered deported. If the immigrant can’t be deported, then he has to be released unless the government produces new evidence to keep him in custody, such as ties to terrorism. The appeals board also upheld two previous decisions that prohibited the government from deporting the brothers to Iran due to the likelihood of their being persecuted and tortured.

The Mirmehdi’s six-month deadline was February 20th, when the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that the government had failed to prove they had engaged in terrorist activity. The government offered to release the brothers on 13 conditions, which included not associating with MEK members or other terrorists and not traveling more than 30 miles from home without ICE permission. The brothers rejected the offer, believing the terms were too vague. They feared that any of their business contacts or associates could be deemed a terrorist, allowing the government to re-arrest them.

The FBI was shocked when the brothers refused to sign the agreement, assuming they would be desperate. Agents began berating the brothers, screaming at them. The brothers had an in-person interview scheduled with Nightline. Nightline was told that they would soon be released, thereby mooting the need for an interview.

The release came just ten days after the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General launched an investigation into the alleged beating of Mohammed by an ICE guard. The incident began when Mostafa intervened in an altercation between an ICE guard and a Palestinian detainee pleading to go to the restroom. Mohammed was ultimately sent to a Santa Ana jail, where he spent ten days on 23-hour lock down on weekdays and 24-hour lock down on weekends.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, calling from a Terminal Island payphone, Moshen nervously asked “Are we going to be deported to another country, like Afghanistan, Iraq, or some country close to Iran?” Though they have still been ordered deported, the brothers are fighting to reopen Mohammed’s and Mojtaba’s case while awaiting Mostafa and Moshen’s appeal to come to a conclusion.

“It is very difficult, especially when you know you haven’t done anything. But to know you’re in here because of your political opinions...it hurts a lot,” Moshen said.

“I believe in democracy, that’s why we’re here in this country. I don’t trust this system anymore. When we got released the first time, there was no more privacy. We feel insecure, betrayed by the U.S. government and the state department.”

Thawing Washington and Tehran Relations With Nuclear Power

The Mirmehdi’s case offers a worm’s-eye view of the lengths the US is willing to go in search of spies and informants in countries seen as obstacles to US geopolitical interests.

The eldest brother, Mostafa, moved to America after Iran’s Islamic Revolution installed a repressive theocratic regime. He arrived on a student visa studying Nuclear Engineering at the University of Oklahoma Norman Campus. Fed up with low wage jobs, he earned his real estate license and began buying and selling real estate in 1985. In those days, no green card was required for a real estate license.

Things fell apart for the brothers in 1999, when they were arrested for lying on their political asylum application. The brothers were in the US on tourist and student visas. The brothers looked to Bahram Tabatabi to assist them in filing their application—a man with a sterling reputation for his commitment to helping Iranian expatriates become legal citizens. His business was helping his clients navigate through the mountains of immigration paperwork and coaching them for the interviews. Tabatabi went the extra mile to help his compatriots when the deadlines were cut too close or bits of their backgrounds would hold up or nullify their chances at getting their green cards altogether.

In 1999, Tabatabi was arrested, charged and plead guilty to immigration fraud and assisting terrorists, receiving a two-year prison term with three-year probation. In a 2001 deposition, Tabatabi said he would get 25 years in prison if he didn’t plead guilty to assisting terrorists alongside the immigration fraud charge. He denied any terrorist involvement and said his attorney convinced him to plead guilty to avoid 25 years in prison. He denied knowing that any of his clients were MEK members, though a witness--possibly a paid government informant with a criminal history--said that he did know. The FBI seized several boxes of documents that it alleged belonged to MEK. FBI translators identified the documents, which included the brothers’ names, as a Los Angeles cell list, which led to the Mirmehdi’s arrest, but only for lying on their political asylum papers.

All the brothers, except Mohammed, were ultimately released on bond five months after they were arrested. Mohammed’s bail request was denied, but he was released on appeal after 18 months. Just a year after Mohammed’s release, the 9/11 attacks leveled the World Trade Center, and in consequence the brothers got caught up in the US dragnet of Middle Easterners—reminiscent of Japanese American’s internment in World War II concentration camps. The Mirmehdi’s notice came in the form of a letter from the Immigration Nationalization Service (INS, now ICE) requesting an interview.

“The US talks about democracy and freedom then they take away our rights. It’s no different from an Islamic government jailing dissidents,” Moshen said during a lengthy phone interview.

On October 2, 2001, Moshen and Mohammed were taken into custody the moment they walked into the downtown Los Angeles’ INS office for their interview. Moshen says they weren’t even told the charges for which they were being arrested. Mojtaba was followed and taken into custody in front of his home, while Mostafa arranged his surrender through his lawyers. He was out of town on business when he received word that that the authorities were looking for him. That was when they found that they had been charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization, in addition to immigration fraud.

According to a recent Newsweek story, the role of MEK members may be growing in the calculations of Bush administration hard-liners. At a camp south of Baghdad, 3,850 MEK members have been confined by U.S. forces since the invasion of Iraq. Now, the administration is seeking to cull useful members as operatives for use against Tehran, all while insisting that it does not deal with the MEK as a group.

MEK—also known as the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran—is the largest and most militant group opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is led by husband and wife Massoud and Maryam Rajavi. It was added to the U.S. State Department’s list of foreign terrorist groups in 1997 and to the European Union’s terrorist list in 2002 because its attacks have often killed civilians. Despite its violent tactics, MEK’s strong stand against Iran—part of President Bush’s “axis of evil”—and pro-democratic image have won it support among some U.S. and European lawmakers.

Founded in the 1960s by college-educated Iranian leftists opposed to the country’s pro-Western ruler monarchy, MEK participated in the 1979 Islamic revolution that resulted in a Shiite Islamist regime led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, sharply at odds with MEK’s ideology, a blend of Marxism and Islamism. MEK’s original leadership was soon executed, and the group was driven from its bases on the Iran-Iraq border. It resettled in Paris in 1981, where it began supporting Iraq in its eight-year war against Khomeini’s Iran. In 1986, MEK moved its headquarters to Iraq, which used MEK to harass neighboring Iran. During the 2003 Iraq war, U.S. forces cracked down on MEK’s bases in Iraq, and in June 2003 French authorities raided an MEK compound outside Paris and arrested 160 people, including Maryam Rajavi.

When Saddam Hussein was in power, MEK received the majority of its financial support from the Iraqi regime. It also used front organizations, such as the Muslim Iranian Student’s Society, to collect money from expatriate Iranians and others, according to the State Department’s counter-terrorism office. In 2001, the Justice Department accused seven Iranians in the United States of funneling donations collected at Los Angeles International Airport —between $5,000 and $10,000 per day—to MEK. The money allegedly was for starving children in Iran; according to the FBI, it was used to buy arms.

On at least three occasions, the FBI allegedly approached the brothers to become informants. According to Moshen and Mohammed, the first time they were approached by the FBI, the brothers were asked to testify that Tabatabi was an MEK member in exchange for their freedom. The brothers refused, recalling from their conversation with Tabatabi that he was in fact a monarchist, therefore unlikely to be affiliated with a left-leaning Islamic organization.

On another occasion the brothers were asked to testify against MEK members regarding a fundraiser at LAX. An FBI agent offered them money and green cards to relocate to Florida. Agents even said they only needed two of the brothers. The brothers refused to go along, so in consequence were kept in custody at the request of the agent on the grounds of being a threat to national security.

The FBI and the CIA regard MEK as cultists under the sway of Masoud and Maryam Rajavi, and the Defense Department has denied there is any “cooperation agreement” with MEK and that it has no plans to use MEK members in any capacity. However, the Mirmehdi’s allegations reinforce Newsweek’s story, strongly suggesting that the Bush Administration is much more desperate for Iranian intelligence than it is letting on. Perhaps desperate enough to produce another Ahmed Chalabi, with more tales of mythical weapons of mass destruction.

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