The Justice Department said Friday that Immigration and Naturalization Commissioner Alan Nelson made the recent key decision to alter subversion charges against eight Los Angeles-area immigrants accused of participating in a Marxist faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"The decision was made by the commissioner of the INS," Patrick Korten, deputy director of the Justice Department's public affairs office, told The Times. Korten said in a telephone interview that the charges were changed following a discussion among the Justice Department's top civil litigation attorneys, and that U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III was personally informed of the decision.
Defense attorneys said the role of Meese and Nelson underscored the political nature of the case. "You have to reach back to Washington to find there was a political base for the prosecution," attorney Leonard Weinglass said in an interview following proceedings Friday in U.S. Immigration Court here.
Lawyers for the immigrants--all of whom are facing deportation--have argued since their arrests last January that the Reagan Administration was attempting to intimidate Arabs in this country who disagree with the Administration's failed Middle East policies. The government has denied the charge.
In another indication of the government's shifting tactics, an INS associate general counsel in Washington said Friday that she has taken charge of the prosecution of the immigrants, seven Jordanians and a Kenyan. The attorney, Esmeralda Cabrera, replaced Elizabeth Hacker, the INS district counsel in Los Angeles.
Friday, before Immigration Judge Ingrid K. Hrycenko, lead defense counsel Dan Stormer charged again that the INS was using the case to test an anti-terrorist contingency plan to round up and ultimately deport Arabs and others who dissent from Administration policies.
Stormer said the INS plan, which was disclosed last February and recommended denying bail for suspected terrorists and holding secret court hearings, was "a virtual blueprint" for what the government was trying to do to his clients.
Not Officially Adopted
But INS attorney Cabrera, acknowledging that such a proposal existed, said the plan "has not been officially adopted." In any case, she said, "it's clearly a plan to deal with terrorism in the United States. If that's a crime, so be it." Based on a three-year FBI investigation, the INS has accused the eight defendants, under the McCarran-Walter Act, of being "members" or "affiliated" with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a PLO group that has had a history of overseas terrorism in the 1970s. The defendants, none of whom has been accused of any crimes, have denied any association with the PFLP.
Late last month, the government suddenly dropped subversion charges against six of the defendants, instead moving to deport them as security risks on visa violations. Two others, accused of being the PFLP ringleaders here, Khader Musa Hamide, 33, of Glendale, and Michel Ibrahim Shehadeh, 30, of Long Beach, had their subversion charges substantially narrowed to allegations that they supported an organization which advocates "the unlawful damage, injury or destruction of property."
Defense counsel Weinglass led a two-hour effort to prove that the immigrants were denied their due process rights under the Fifth Amendment. INS attorney Cabrera responded by accusing the defense of "going on a fishing expedition and creating a circus in this courtroom."
Weinglass placed on the witness stand Edgar Chamorro, a one-time leader of the Nicaraguan contra s who lives in Miami, and political science professor Barnett Rubin of Yale University, an expert on the efforts of rebels to overthrow the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan.
Allowed to Operate
In both instances, the witnesses said that revolutionary groups advocating destruction, murder and the overthrow of the Nicaraguan and Afghan governments were allowed by Washington to openly operate in the United States without fear of the INS moving to deport them.
Chamorro, 55, a former Jesuit priest in Nicaragua, said he finally left the contra organization in November, 1984, when the Central Intelligence Agency ordered his group to assassinate a number of people in Nicaragua, including "police chiefs and other officials."
The Justice Department, Weinglass alleged, was inconsistently attempting to deport the eight aliens for participating in the same kind of political activities it encouraged contra leaders to conduct in this country. But Cabrera said after the hearing, "None of these groups are advocating terrorism in the United States."
The hearing will continue Monday.