Iran General NewsU.S. refuses to release Iranian brothers despite court decision

U.S. refuses to release Iranian brothers despite court decision

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Knight Ridder Newspapers: Since they were locked up in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the four Mirmehdi brothers have insisted that they aren’t terrorists. This summer, an immigration appeals court agreed, concurring with an immigration judge that the government’s case is weak and doesn’t conclusively tie them to terrorism. Knight Ridder Newspapers

BY SHANNON MCCAFFREY

WASHINGTON – Since they were locked up in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the four Mirmehdi brothers have insisted that they aren’t terrorists.

This summer, an immigration appeals court agreed, concurring with an immigration judge that the government’s case is weak and doesn’t conclusively tie them to terrorism. It seemed that after more than three years in detention, the brothers would finally be released on bond.

But this week the Homeland Security Department delivered crushing news. Ignoring the immigration court’s decision, the government refused to release the brothers Tuesday, saying they remained a threat to national security.

“We are being held hostage,” Mohsen Mirmehdi said in a telephone interview from a detention center in San Pedro, Calif. “This is a nightmare, and it will not end.”

The brothers’ lawyer Marc Van Der Hout of San Francisco said the men were victims of post-Sept. 11 hysteria and called it outrageous that the Bush administration would keep them behind bars as threats after the courts had determined they aren’t.

“It’s Alice in Wonderland,” Van Der Hout said. “I’ve been practicing immigration law for 25 years and I’ve never seen government hubris like this.”

The government has maintained that there’s a simple way for the brothers to leave their cellblock: stop fighting deportation and return to their native Iran.

But it was the brothers’ support of an exile group dedicated to the overthrow of the Iranian government that got them in trouble with U.S. authorities. They argue that if they go back to Iran they’ll be persecuted or tortured. The Board of Immigration Appeals found that belief reasonable and barred them from being returned to Iran.

So they’re in a legal limbo. The brothers – Mohammed, Mostafa, Mohsen and Mojtaba – once sold real estate in the Los Angeles area. They say they’ve become increasingly depressed as their time in prison has dragged on without any end in sight. Mostafa Mirmehdi said his hair had turned completely gray. Another brother suffers from anxiety attacks and is losing tufts of hair, Mostafa said.

Mohammed Mirmehdi said he found it sadly ironic that he and his brothers were being locked up without criminal charges filed against them, just the kind of repression they left Iran to escape.

“We came to America because of the freedom,” he said. “We did not think that such things happened here. This is like Tehran.”

At issue are the brothers’ connections to the Mujahedeen Khalq, abbreviated as the MEK. The State Department listed the group as a terrorist organization in October 1997. But its history is complex. Before 1997, members of the MEK were lauded as freedom fighters against the repressive Iranian mullahs. The group’s political arm – the National Council of Resistance of Iran – kept an office in Washington and had widespread support on Capitol Hill. One of the most vocal backers was then-U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, of Missouri, who went on to be the attorney general who locked up the Mirmehdi brothers.

The brothers say they attended protests against the Iranian regime, including one of several thousand people at an economic summit in Denver in July 1997 that the government says the MEK helped organize.

Mohsen Mirmehdi said he and his brothers never were affiliated with the MEK and noted that the Denver rally came before the State Department listing. At least one congressman, Rep. Gary Ackerman, a New York Democrat, attended the rally, according to news accounts at the time.

The strongest strike against the Mirmehdis came from FBI agent Christopher Castillo, who testified that a search of an MEK safe house in Los Angeles turned up a list with the brothers’ names on it. An informant had told the FBI that the list constituted an MEK cell.

The brothers maintain that it was simply a partial catalog of people who traveled to the rally in Denver. Several independent translators hired by the brothers’ lawyers backed up that claim, noting that the date of the rally is written in Farsi at the top of the page, which includes plane-ticket information.

In a decision filed in late August, immigration appeals Judge Lauri Filppu wrote: “We can find no evidence in the record, despite the seemingly extensive government investigation, that directly connects” the brothers to terrorism.

The Mirmehdis’ case has taken a winding route through the federal and immigration courts over the last three years.

Van Der Hout said he now planned to pursue it in U.S. District Court, which essentially means going back to the beginning.

Officials of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the arm of the Homeland Security Department that’s handling the brothers’ detention, had no immediate comment.

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