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Controversial Muslim cleric is arrested while sneaking into the U.S.

Deported from Canada to Tunisia three years ago, Muslim cleric Said Jaziri was found hiding in the trunk of a BMW near the Mexican border.

January 27, 2011|By Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times
  • Said Jaziri's deportation case drew attention in Canada three years ago because the imam's views were disliked by many in that country.
Said Jaziri's deportation case drew attention in Canada three years… (Fethi Belaid / AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from San Diego — U.S. border authorities have arrested a controversial Muslim cleric who was deported from Canada to Tunisia three years ago and was caught earlier this month trying to sneak into California in the trunk of a BMW, according to court documents.

Said Jaziri, the former imam of a Muslim congregation in Montreal, was hidden in a car driven by a San Diego-area man who was pulled over by U.S. Border Patrol agents near an Indian casino east of San Diego on Jan. 11. Jaziri had allegedly paid a Tijuana-based smuggling group $5,000 to get him across the border near Tecate, saying he wanted to be taken to a "safe place anywhere in the U.S."

The arrest marks the unexpected resurfacing of the 43-year-old cleric, whose protracted legal battle to avoid deportation drew headlines in Canada. A Tunisian immigrant, Jaziri was deported for failing to disclose a criminal conviction in France while applying for refugee status in the mid-1990s.

But Jaziri's supporters said he was targeted for his fundamentalist views: He backed Sharia law for Canadian Muslims and led protests over the publication of the Prophet Mohammed cartoons in a Danish newspaper in 2006.

Jaziri is being held as a material witness in the criminal case against the BMW's driver, Kenneth Robert Lawler, who has been charged with alien smuggling. He is at the San Luis Detention Facility near Yuma, Ariz., according to his attorney, Wayne Charles Mayer. His bond has been set at $25,000.

In Quebec's large Muslim community, Jaziri stood out for his outspoken views, and though his mosque was small, he drew outsized media attention for his strict interpretation of the Koran. Jaziri labeled homosexuality a sin and pushed for government subsidies to build a large mosque for Montreal's growing Muslim population.

"His nickname in Quebec was the controversial imam," said Lise Garon, a professor of communications at Laval University in Quebec City, adding that his case tapped into the anti-immigrant mood in the community. "I think he was deported because people hated his ideas."

Jaziri opposed his deportation to Tunisia out of fear that he would be tortured by the government. His case drew support from Muslim organizations and Amnesty International. It's unclear what his treatment was like in Tunisia after his deportation, or whether his subsequent journey was related to the recent unrest there.

According to the court documents, a Mexican foot guide led Jaziri and a Mexican immigrant over the border fence near Tecate, and they trekked overnight through the rugged back country to a road where drivers frequently pick up immigrants for smuggling runs into San Diego.

Border Patrol agents, alerted by firefighters who saw the two immigrants get into the car's trunk, pulled the driver over near the Golden Acorn Casino about 50 miles east of San Diego. Jaziri told agents that his journey had been a long one: He had taken a flight from Africa to Europe, then to Central America and Chetumal, Mexico, on the Mexico-Belize border, where he took a bus to Tijuana.

richard.marosi@latimes.com

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