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Deportation Hearing Closed

Law: A public bond proceeding for Muslim student in Arizona would compromise FBI's anti-terror efforts, judge rules.

June 20, 2002|GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal judge in Phoenix ruled Wednesday that a bond hearing for an outspoken Islamic student facing deportation will be held in closed session to safeguard the FBI's methods of investigating terrorism.

Acting on an unprecedented request by attorneys for the INS, Immigration Judge Scott M. Jefferies agreed that a normally routine hearing for Zakaria Soubra, 26, will be held behind closed doors Monday. The judge also granted the INS' request that all parties to the case be prohibited from disclosing any information discussed or presented at the hearing in Florence, Ariz., just outside Phoenix.

While several closed proceedings have been held in other terrorism-related cases since the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, court officials said Wednesday's order represented the first time a deportation hearing has been closed--and all details of the case sealed--under a federal court regulation unveiled last month by U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft.

In court papers, INS attorneys said disclosure of the contents of sealed affidavits from federal investigators would "compromise United States interest in enforcing federal immigration law and the ongoing investigation of terrorists."

Soubra, an outspoken Lebanese national, has been held in INS custody since May 23 for allegedly violating his immigration status as a college student by falling below the minimum number of credits required in a semester.

He also is one of the eight alleged Middle Eastern extremists named in the "Phoenix memo" written by Phoenix-based FBI agent Kenneth Williams in July 2001 warning that Islamic extremists were enrolling in U.S. flight schools.

In the sealed affidavits presented to Jeffries, both Williams and Andrew G. Arena, chief of the FBI's International Terrorism Operations Section, requested that Soubra's hearings in the deportation case be closed.

Authorities have not alleged any links between Soubra and the September skyjackers. But records and interviews show that FBI agents have been interested for more than a year in Soubra's attendance at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., as well as his membership in Al Muhajiroun, a hard-line anti-American group based in London that some intelligence agents suspect of links to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, Al Qaeda.

It was partly the concern about Al Muhajiroun and Soubra's connections to flight schools that prompted Williams' memo.

Soubra has acknowledged causing controversy in Arizona. He organized a street demonstration protesting Russia's war in Chechnya; arranged a critical discussion of the U.S.' presence in Yemen, and was asked to leave a local mosque after scolding members for accepting the authority of the U.S. government.

But in an interview last fall with The Times, Soubra condemned the Sept. 11 attacks as a violation of Islamic law because they targeted civilians.

"Obviously, the government is doing everything it can to keep this guy locked up," said Soubra's attorney, Eric Bjotvedt. "Yet they are not charging him as a terrorist. They are only saying he fell out of status."

Said Bjotvedt: "He feels he has been wrongly detained and become a scapegoat, all because he fit some profile."

Officials with the INS did not return calls for comment about the ruling.

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