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U.S. Holds Filmmaker in Iraq

Family drafts suit to free L.A. man working on a Cyrus the Great project. Pentagon plans hearing to determine if director is a security threat.

July 06, 2005|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

Cyrus Kar's family says he left his Los Feliz apartment for Iraq to make a documentary film about a Persian king who wrote the world's first charter of human rights. But now they fear he may never get home.

On May 17, Kar was stopped at a Baghdad checkpoint in a taxi allegedly packed with a common component for improvised explosive devices, according to a Defense Department spokesman. Since then, he has been in U.S. military detention outside Baghdad.

Kar's family says the detention is a mistake. Kar, 44, a U.S. citizen and Navy veteran who was born in Iran and came here during his childhood, is a patriotic American who supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, they said Tuesday. He has not been charged with a crime, the Defense Department spokesman confirmed.

"A search of the vehicle the men were traveling in revealed a large number of washing machine timers, a device frequently used to make improvised explosive devices," said the Pentagon spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Pentagon official said Kar would have a hearing to determine "whether he is a security threat, involved in the insurgency, has committed a crime or is found innocent after a thorough investigation.... In that environment, where you have frequent suicide bombings and frequent improvised explosive devices going off, one can understand the need to be extremely cautious any time you come across anyone with components that could be used to make IEDS."

Kar's relatives say they cannot understand why authorities won't let him go, because they say Los Angeles FBI Agent John D. Wilson told them weeks ago that Kar's story had checked out, that he had passed a government polygraph test and that he had been cleared of any charges.

They say Wilson told them that the cameraman and the taxi driver also had been cleared.

During an interview Tuesday, Kar's aunt, Parvin Modarress, and his cousin Shahrzad Folger played a voicemail they said Wilson left at their home weeks ago. On it the voice says Kar is "in custody. He's fine. It's just that we're trying to get his release.... Be patient."

Wilson acknowledged in a brief telephone conversation Tuesday that he had met with the women but said he could not speak further.

Cathy Viray, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles FBI office, said she could not comment on the matter.

Today, the frustrated relatives, who say they have not been able to get answers from any U.S. government agency, plan to file a federal lawsuit in Washington challenging Kar's continued confinement in Iraq.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and other civil liberties lawyers are representing Kar, Modarress and Folger against President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army Maj. William H. Brandenburg, overseer of military detention operations in Baghdad.

Mark D. Rosenbaum, the ACLU's Southern California legal director, said the suit seeks Kar's release on a writ of habeas corpus, the legal vehicle used in this country since its inception to seek release of an individual illegally confined by authorities.

"Mr. Kar is now imprisoned by the United States military in Iraq without the slightest hint of legal authority," Rosenbaum said. "His arbitrary military detention is unaccompanied by any charge, any warrant, any writ or any process. So far as either the civilian or the military court system is concerned, Mr. Kar has simply disappeared into detention without a trace."

According to a draft of the lawsuit, Kar has lived in the U.S. since he was 9. He attended high school in San Jose, served in the U.S. Navy for years, eventually attaining the rank of petty officer third class.

He attended San Jose State, where he received an undergraduate degree in marketing, worked in the computer industry in Silicon Valley and in the mid-1900s received a master's degree in technology management from Pepperdine University.

He occasionally taught business courses for an online university.

About three years ago, Kar became interested in the history of ancient Persia, particularly the story of King Cyrus the Great, founder of Persia. He went to Iraq, over his family's objections, to film near Baghdad. He also filmed in Iran, Tajikistan, Turkey and Afghanistan and consulted with scholars.

David Stronach, professor of Near Eastern archeology at UC Berkeley, has signed a sworn declaration to be filed with the lawsuit, stating that he has known Kar for more than two years and has "assisted him in making his documentary" about Cyrus the Great, whom he described as "one of history's most extraordinary figures."

Stronach said Cyrus "is mentioned many times in the Bible, not least because he liberated the captive Jewish community in Babylon -- an event that allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, rebuild the temple, and arguably, provide the conditions that permitted the birth of Christianity.

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