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Los Angeles

To Avoid Visa Fight, Muslim Cleric to Leave

Imprisoned Orange County imam insists he's innocent of terrorist links but opts to depart the U.S. with his family for the Middle East.

December 29, 2004|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

A Muslim cleric suspected of terrorist ties agreed Tuesday to leave the country rather than fight a legal battle with immigration officials.

"I came to this country in peace," Imam Wagdy Mohamed Ghoneim said during a court hearing at which the deal was struck. "I did not come here to scare anybody."

Ghoneim, whose case has drawn widespread support from Muslims in Southern California, agreed to leave by Jan. 7 for Qatar or Bahrain, where he holds visas, in exchange for his release. His family, including his wife and seven children, also must leave. U.S. Immigration Judge D.D. Sitgraves approved the agreement, which bars Ghoneim's return for 10 years.

The government alleges that Ghoneim, who came to the U.S. in 2001 from Egypt, participated in fundraising activities around the country that could have helped terrorist organizations, said Bill Odencrantz, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement director of field legal operations.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 13, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Cleric -- A Dec. 29 article in the California section failed to attribute a phrase that called the government's treatment of a Muslim cleric "part of a disturbing trend." It should have been attributed to Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Ghoneim has not been charged with terrorist activity, however. Instead, he was arrested at his Anaheim home Nov. 4 on suspicion of overstaying his religious-worker visa. He was charged with the immigration violation, Odencrantz said, "because it was the easiest charge to prove."

"Frankly, our task is not to sit around and wait for people to blow up buildings," Odencrantz said. "Our task is to look at situations and circumstances and take action against people."

Since his arrest, Ghoneim has been held at the federal detention facility in San Pedro.

On Tuesday, Ghoneim was in court to seek release on bond. But he faced questioning from Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorney Elena Kusky, who quizzed him about speeches he has made, his opinion of suicide bombers and about teachings in the Koran.

Ghoneim's attorney, Valerie Curtis-Diop, called the government's line of questioning a "fishing expedition."

"It's outrageous that they can arrest and detain someone with no real evidence," Curtis-Diop said. "These are the efforts the government thinks they need to take to find terrorists, but they're attacking the wrong people."

Curtis-Diop said Richard Garcia, assistant director-in-charge of the L.A. office of the FBI, testified at an earlier hearing that the FBI did not have an interest in Ghoneim and did not request that he be detained.

More than 100 of Ghoneim's supporters, many of them members of the Islamic Institute of Orange County, where he serves as the imam, braved heavy rain and gusty winds Tuesday morning to protest his detainment.

After the hearing, Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, criticized the government's aggressive pursuit of the imam.

Ghoneim's case is part of a disturbing trend, which Ayloush described as "the selective application of laws on Muslims, especially on minor violations; the targeting of Muslim travelers at airports; the revoking of visas of Muslim visitors coming to the United States."

The government, for example, this year revoked visas of the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, now Yusuf Islam, and Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan, who was scheduled to teach at the University of Notre Dame.

Many supporters said they agreed with Ghoneim's decision to leave voluntarily but expressed sadness that the government believed he might be helping raise money for terrorists.

And some said they no longer believed that the U.S. supported freedom of speech and religion.

"I am very sad today," said Ghoneim's wife, Somaia. "When we came to the United States, we came for freedom, for free speech."

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