Seated on a couch in his Glendale apartment, surrounded by six of his eight children, Hashim Hawlery looked like a transformed man. Gone was the orange prison uniform worn for a year in an Immigration and Naturalization Service detention facility. In its place, the Iraqi Kurd sported a beige double-breasted suit and an air of relief.
“I am free. It’s like a dream,” said Hawlery, who had been living a nightmare since the United States offered him and his family refuge from persecution in Iraq, only to put Hawlery behind bars.
Hawlery’s 20-year-old daughter, Suad, remembers her horror when the family landed at California’s Edwards Air Force Base in March 1997 to discover the fate awaiting them.
“I was so scared when we heard the bus would take us to the jail. I thought the U.S. was putting us here to be safe,” she said. After a week in detention, the INS granted everyone in the Hawlery family political asylum, except the father. The INS reported it was considering bringing security charges against him.
Nearly a year later, Friday, March 13, Immigration Judge D.D. Sitgraves granted the longtime Kurdish dissident political asylum over the objections of the INS. Hawlery, a journalist and critic of Saddam Hussein who fled Iraq because of his work for the U.S.-backed Iraqi opposition, was reunited with his family.
Six other Iraqis, who were similarly held by the INS at its San Pe dro facility, have not been as fortunate. Judge Sitgraves recently denied them asylum and ordered them deported back to Iraq, finding, “There are ‘reasonable grounds’ for regarding the applicants as security risks to the United States.”
The detainees deny they are threats to the U.S. and say they face certain execution if returned to their homeland. They say the INS charges stem from false accusations by feuding members of the splintered Iraqi opposition that the six worked as double agents.
But lawyers for the accused Iraqis have had to contend with unique obstacles in defending against these charges. Judge Sitgraves based her ruling primarily on classified evidence provided by FBI agents, who testified in secret and were subjected to only limited cross-examination by the defense.
As Niels Frenzen, who’s representing five of the six men for the Public Counsel Law Center, put it, “We are no further along in understanding what the charges are against my clients today than we were on March 28, 1997, when this case began.”
That could change, however, with news of a major development in the case. Late last Friday, former CIA Director James Woolsey announced he will be joining the defense team for the six Iraqis. Woolsey, a Washington lawyer, brings with him the high security clearances necessary to see the secret evidence against them. Woolsey said he will be meeting the defendants this Friday to offer his services for free.
Like Hashim Hawlery, the accused men were mem bers of one of two CIA-funded Iraqi opposition groups, the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and the Iraqi National Accord (INA), which sought to topple Saddam’s regime from bases in northern Iraq.
When Saddam’s tanks rolled into the opposition’s stronghold in August 1996, crushing the resistance groups and driving out the CIA, the U.S. responded by evacuating 6,500 Iraqis, mainly Kurds, whose lives were considered at risk.
Now the tortured past of the Iraqi opposition is giving the U.S. second thoughts about granting asylum to some of those evacuees. U.S. government officials say the opposition was infiltrated by double agents, particularly the Iraqi National Accord, comprising mainly former Iraqi military officers. A 1996 palace-coup attempt launched by the INA, with the CIA’s backing, was believed to have been foiled by double agents. Scores of military officers reportedly were executed.
A total of 25 Iraqi refugees brought to the U.S. were then detained by the INS, many on secret charges, presumably related to counterintelligence activity.
The head of the INC, Dr. Ahmed Chalabi, however, who has testified on behalf of the three men belonging to the INC, said he doesn’t believe any of the six detainees are spies.
As for specific accusations against their clients, attorneys believe some may stem from finger pointing that took place among the evacuees when they were questioned by INS and FBI agents during a layover on the island of Guam. Frenzen said charges may also arise from FBI ignorance about Iraqi politics, and misunderstanding between the Iraqis, their interpreters, who often spoke a different Arabic dialect from them, and the FBI agents in Guam.
Frenzen pointed to Hawlery’s case as an example. During Hawlery’s final cross-examination, it became clear that the INS’s principal challenge to his credibility had to do with what they called his membership in the “KLM.”
The FBI agent who questioned Hawlery in Guam testified at the Los Angeles hearings that Hawlery had repeatedly referenced “KLM,” which the agent took to be a Kurdish opposition group.
But as Hawlery laughingly recalled, “There is no group called the ‘Kurdish Liberation Movement.’ How can I be a member of something that doesn’t exist? They didn’t understand my story.”
“At one point,” said Frenzen, “Hawlery whispered to me that KLM was a Dutch airline and asked me if I thought the INS was asking about the airline.”
Hawlery’s interpreter in Guam later testified that he himself had created the initials “KLM” to refer to Hawlery’s past work for the Kurdish movement.
Judge Sitgraves recognized the misunderstanding and ruled against the INS. Nevertheless, Hawlery’s false association with a fictitious organization had led the FBI to label Hawlery a problem case, landing him in detention for a year.
Comical as the Hawlery case may seem now, there is little mirth among the six Iraqis still jailed at the INS facility on Terminal Island. “We still don’t know what crime it is we have committed against the United States,” said one of the deportees.
The unclassified part of Sitgraves’ ruling gives little rationale for her decision but does provide glimpses of what might have raised suspicions among government officials. The document details the men’s stories, gathered during questioning by INS and FBI agents while processing Iraqi evacuees at Guam. Agents reportedly red-flagged for additional questioning anyone who had worked for the Iraqi regime or had spent time in Iran or Syria.
In the six San Pedro cases, Sitgraves wrote, the individuals’ testimony contained “significant inconsistencies in light of the classified information provided to the Court.”
Safa Al-Batat testified that he fled to Iran following the Shiite uprising against Saddam after the Gulf War. He later joined the Iraqi National Congress during its inception in 1992 and was responsible for gathering intelligence. He testified that there was a poisoning attempt against his life in 1994, and he was sent by the INC to London for medical treatment.
Another Iraqi, Dr. Adil Hadi Awadh, a member of the INA, testified that before deserting, he was a first-lieutenant doctor at a military hospital where army deserters had their ears surgically removed. Awadh denied being part of the medical team responsible for the ear cutting.
Yet another detainee, Ali Jahjoh Saleh, a first lieutenant in the army, stated that he deserted in 1994 to join the Iraqi National Congress. He testified that he was part of a Gulf War brigade which included a Scud-missile unit, and that he carried a “Friends of Saddam” identity card.
The defense has argued that such ID cards were commonplace in the army and has noted that all Iraqi men were forced to join the military and pledge some form of allegiance to the regime.
Whether or not the other six were ordered deported due to similar misunderstandings, or to sheer bungling, like Hawlery’s KLM mix-up, Frenzen may never know. He said his appeal to the independent Board of Immigration Appeals would be similarly hampered by lack of access to classified evidence.
But Justice Department spokesman Bert Brandenburg insists the fact that some of the Iraqi detainees, including Hawlery and others, were granted asylum only proves the system is fair.
“Judges have not been rubber-stamping the government’s case against these men,” noted Brandenburg. “The law is written to keep dangerous people out of the country and to protect the lives of those who provided secret testimony. It has been used sparingly.”
INC boss Chalabi, who said he’s been lobbying on the men’s behalf in Congress, said their case now hinges on the intervention of ex–CIA chief Woolsey.
“A lawyer of his stature, who has national security clearance, can rebut the charges before the court,” said Chalabi. Otherwise, he added, the men face a grim future.
“If the U.S. says these men are a security risk, what third country will take them?” asked Chalabi, pointing to the difficulties the men may face seeking asylum elsewhere.
“Their choices are life in a U.S. prison or death in Iraq,” he added.
As for Hashim Hawlery, the newly released immigrant said he’s been able to put his painful detention experience behind him. Exulting in his freedom, which he’s been enjoying by spending time with his family and eating Kurdish food, he crowed, “America is the best life in the world. This is the first-class life.”
His daughter Suad, who’s currently studying English at Glendale Community College, is more cautious. “You haven’t tried it yet,” she warned her father. “It’s tough, you’ll see.”