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Board Rules 4 Iranians Not a Threat

Immigration appeals panel calls evidence of brothers' terrorism ties inconclusive. The men, held since 2001, may be sent to another country.

August 25, 2004|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

Four brothers jailed for almost three years for allegedly supporting terrorists are not a danger to national security and cannot be deported to Iran, an immigration appeals board has ruled.

But it was a bittersweet victory for the Mirmehdis -- Mohammed, Mostafa, Mohsen and Mojtaba -- who were arrested Oct. 2, 2001, and are also challenging Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's decision to hold them without bail. The brothers had worked in real estate in the San Fernando Valley before their arrests.

Evidence tying the Mirmehdis to terrorism was inconclusive, the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals ruled. Federal prosecutors had argued that the brothers' support of the Moujahedeen Khalq -- or MEK, an Iranian opposition group that was on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations -- made them a national security threat.

"Collectively, 12 years of their lives have been wasted because they've been locked up," said their attorney, Stacy Tolchin. "Their lives have been ruined over nothing. This shows that the government's war on terrorism has been transformed into a war against civil liberties and free speech."

In the decision, the board upheld the decisions of two immigration judges who said the Mirmehdis would be persecuted if returned to Iran, but at the same time the panel agreed with the government that they did not qualify for political asylum, because they lied on their applications for asylum in 1999.

"We are still in limbo," said Mohsen Mirmehdi.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is considering whether the Mirmehdis should be released on bail while their immigration case is being argued.

The case stems from the brothers' support of the MEK, which was designated a foreign terrorist organization in 1997. In the 1990s, the MEK had a lobbying office in Washington, and the group's members were called freedom fighters and supported by dozens of lawmakers, including then-Sen. Ashcroft (R-Mo.). Before he became U.S. attorney general, Ashcroft continued supporting the group even after the State Department declared it a terrorist organization.

The Mirmehdis attended MEK political rallies before it was identified as a terrorist group. The government has been trying to deport them since 1999, when they falsely stated they had entered the country legally. But immigration judges blocked their deportations on grounds that they would be tortured if forced to return to Iran.

Tolchin said the brothers were "dispirited by the [appeals board] decision because they want full vindication." But she said the Mirmehdis also won a partial victory because the government's failure to tie them to terrorism "means they aren't a danger to national security."

In a decision filed Friday but made public Tuesday, board member Lauri S. Filppu wrote "we can find no evidence in the record, despite the seemingly extensive government investigation, that directly connects" Mohsen Mirmehdi to terrorism. The panel concluded that the government also failed to tie the other brothers to terrorists.

Tolchin said the ruling means the Mirmehdis could legally be freed from custody within 90 days. She said she will attempt to negotiate an agreement with Homeland Security Department officials for their release.

However, Manny Van Pelt, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington, said the agency, part of the Homeland Security Department, will instead try to find a third country that will accept the Mirmehdis.

"The ruling doesn't mean that they will be released; only that we cannot return them to Iran. We have a 90-day removal period to find an alternate country that will accept them," Van Pelt said.

Tolchin said U.S. officials continue to treat the Mirmehdis as terrorists, despite their "constant denials that they are not terrorists and the government's failure to prove that they are."

Immigration judges ruled two years ago that the brothers' participation in MEK rallies was protected by the constitutional right of free speech.

The panel found that U.S. prosecutors failed to show that the Mirmehdis had engaged in terrorist activities.

"First, the immigration board says we are a national security risk, then they say we are not terrorists. But nothing has changed for us," said Mohsen Mirmehdi, in a telephone interview from the immigration detention center in San Pedro. "The new ruling means we have been [in custody] for no reason. We could've been released two years ago while our immigration cases continued."

Mostafa, 44, arrived in the U.S. in 1978. Mojtaba, 41, and Mohsen, 36, arrived together in 1992. Mohammed, 31, got here in 1993. After their 1999 arrests, Mohsen, Mostafa and Mojtaba were each released on $50,000 bail in August 1999 while their deportation case continued. Mohammed was released on $75,000 bail in September 2000.

They were arrested again in October 2001, after authorities determined there were "changed circumstances" in their case. The brothers tried to again secure release on bail, but were denied by an immigration judge who cited Ashcroft's claim that they were national security risks.

The Mirmehdis' case has been heard by several immigration law judges, a U.S. magistrate judge and a U.S. district court judge. They have hired at least four sets of attorneys in an effort to obtain release on bond.

"The board's decision was right and just," Tolchin said. "But the Mirmehdis are still locked up and their disappointment continues."

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