The immigration trial of Imam Mohammad Qatanani has been postponed until September 17, 2013. The postponement reflected the time needed for the government to respond to demands placed by the defense team, and approved by the judge, for certain documents deemed essential to answering the two main charges against the Imam. The two charges are his alleged membership and subsequent ‘confession’ and ‘conviction’ for membership in Hamas, the Palestinian militant group. Secondly, the Imam’s response to a certain question on his application for permanent residency. Since 2005, the US government has sought to deport the Imam but in 2008 a judge dismissed the government’s charges and issued his permanent residency card. Soon after, the government appealed the decision and it was returned to the same judge for retrial.
A recent case conference between the lawyers for the Paterson’s Imam of the Islamic Center of Passaic County, government lawyers and presiding immigration judge Riefkohl concluded the necessity to move the original trial date of November 26, 2013, to April 22, 2013. Lead Attorney Claudia Slovinsky stated in an email, “The documents requested by the defense team are essential for responding to the questions raised by the Board of Immigration Appeal (BIA) in its decision to remand the case. However, the agencies that possess the records of interest have repeatedly failed to produce records in accordance with Qatanani’s team’s requests under FOIA and upon direct request of the government’s Chief Counsel.” The Imam, who has been dealing with a deportation legal battle since at least 2005, said that “I was hoping for this long ordeal to come to a conclusion soon, I respect the decision arrived at and look forward to continuing my work as a spiritual guide to my congregation.”
As required by law, the defense team, aided by Gibbons Law Firm, had exhausted all available venues to obtain crucial documents from the government, responsive to the FOIA request. The government’s failure to respond was soon followed by a motion for an administrative subpoena. The judge’s order demands the government respond to the submitted motion by December 7, 2012; to be followed by a possible response from defense team by the 14th and, finally, conclude with a judge’s decision by December 21, 2012.” The new trial, set for April 22, 2013, will take place at the Federal Courthouse in Newark, New Jersey.
Speculations abound as to the expected opinion of the judge. Of great significance is a recent ruling by a US Federal district court which issued an opinion highly critical of the government’s handling of a request submitted by the American Immigration Council for records relating to noncitizens’ access to counsel. The Court ordered USCIS to turn over records that it previously had refused to produce.
The defense’s motion was based on the fact that “Congress has recognized an alien’s right in removal proceedings” to “examine the evidence against [him or her],” “to present evidence on [his or her] behalf” and to “cross-examine witnesses presented by the Government.” Congress has also mandated that an “alien shall have access” to documents “pertaining to the alien’s admission or presence in the United States.” The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and the federal regulations authorize an Immigration Judge to issue subpoenas for the attendance of witnesses or for the production of books, papers, and other documentary evidence, or both.”
In addition to the motion to request essential documents from the government, the defense team submitted another motion petitioning the court to render invalid the eight statements the government has produced alleging what the Imam has told jailed Palestinians of his links to Hamas. Citing the now illegal methods of Israeli military interrogation of detained Palestinians and the reliance on torture and the use of Hebrew to capture such ‘confessions’ in addition to the inability of the defense to question the ‘witnesses’, the defense had hoped to convince the judge to render an opinion to dismiss these statements.
At the recent conference, Judge Riefkohl informed the parties of his decision to exclude the Israeli statements allegedly made by Imam Qatanani’s and of eight other Palestinian detainees. The judge’s very thorough opinion ruled that the eight detainees’ statements cannot be admitted into the record for many reasons and that the statements alleged to be Imam Qatanani’s can be admitted and considered for some or no weight. Of course, the Imam has already testified that he never confessed to membership in Hamas. The invalidated statements represented the only “new” evidence the government was relying on to win the case.
The problem with the ‘new’ evidence’ is that it cannot be verified and most likely it was the result of forced confessions obtained by Israeli military interrogators and in a language foreign to the defendants. Israeli and world human rights organizations have long argued that the Isreal Security Agency (ISA) or GSS as previously known has employed illegal and inhumane methods to extract confessions from Palestinian detainees. In fact, Israel’s High Court of Justice, in a 1999 landmark decision, held that the ISA’s routine methods of interrogating Palestinians were not lawful. The High Court ruled that ISA interrogators were not authorized by statute to use these methods. Israeli military ‘legal’ system uses only confessions and not evidentiary proceedings to convict Palestinian defendants. Confessions make irrelevant the presumption of innocence and the need for due process. Palestinians en masse were detained for reasons never known to them, their lawyers and their families until after they endured inhumane treatment and signed a confession.
Israeli military ‘justice’ Exposed
Excerpt from an Israeli Army interrogator’s interview by Human Rights Watch in 1993, in which the interrogator was asked about the impact of interrogation techniques on Palestinian detainees. (This being the same year Imam Qatanani was detained by Israel.)
“Did they all sign a confession?”
Almost everyone signed something. If they were so badly beaten, they could not sign right away. After four or more days they would sign to anything just to stop the interrogation.”
“Did people sign false confessions there, do you think?”
“Believe me, they would sign anything towards the end, no matter they did it or not, anything.”
One cannot imagine that in the United States, for example, a Spanish-speaking defendant would be found guilty based not only on his forced confession but also on one that is written in English, a language he does not understand! Statements extracted in this fashion, cannot be considered confessions by the defendant and as such they lack any probative value whatsoever. Several U.S. cases attest to the admissibility of statement extracted by threat or violence and in fact, rejected them for they negated the premise of due process clause even when so obtained by a foreign country. (U.S. vs. Karaki, 443 F Supp 2d 8, 51, (DDC. 2006).
It is astonishing that our U.S. government would even consider such documents as freely obtained confessions and on which to arrive at its determination that the Imam has admitted to anything illegal that may have been included in the Hebrew statement. Experts, on Israeli military court system readily note the practice of routinely ‘augmenting’ forced confessions by producing similar ones acquired from or attributed to other detainees.
Imam Qatanani’s first trial in 2008 court proceeding resulted in the judge’s order to grant the Imam and his foreign-born children permanent residency. But the government appealed the decision to the Board of the Immigration Appeals (BIA). The BIA threw the case back in the hands of the same judge’s with the recommendation for a new assessment of certain angels they deemed were not given sufficient weight. The Imam has always denied his membership in Hamas and has successfully argued that the Hebrew language statements attributed to him (and provided by his Israeli jailers) were obtained due to physical and emotional torture.
Israeli and Palestinian lawyers with decades of experience in the Israeli military court system opine that the following interrogation, Palestinian detainees may be released, formally charged, or placed under indefinite administrative detention. Anyone who knows how Israel views Hamas would admit that had this allegation proved true, the Imam would have been serving a very long sentence. The Imam was set free, released without bail and without restrictions on his movement. He was even allowed to the leave the country. Only one conclusion can be deduced from this scenario: Israel itself never believed that the Imam was a member of Hamas.
The continued practice involving Palestinian detainees forced to sign confessions written in Hebrew, a language few detainees comprehend, is a stark manifestation of the unfairness of the military court system that governs the lives of 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank. It is worth noting that, besides Hebrew, Arabic is an official language in Israel. Yet the military chooses to ignore the language barrier of the Arabic-speaking detainees. Once obtained, it is these confessions that constitute the primary evidence against them in the Israeli military court or the bargaining chip for their release from detention.
Aref Assaf is a frequent commentator on American Mulsim affairs.