By H.G. Reza, Times Staff Writer
4 Brothers have been held since 2001 in what their lawyer calls 'post-9/11 hysteria.' U.S. officials cite support for a group on terrorist list.
Locked up more than two years as a security threat and accused of supporting terrorists, four Iranian brothers are challenging Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's decision to hold them without bail in a case their attorney said stemmed from "post-9/11 hysteria."
The Mirmehdi brothers Mohammed, Mostafa, Mohsen and Mojtaba, who once worked as real estate agents in the San Fernando Valley have been in custody since Oct. 2, 2001. U.S. officials wanted to deport them, but immigration judges intervened, finding that they would be persecuted if forced to return.
An immigration appeals court ruled that they were subject to mandatory detention under a provision of the Patriot Act, though they have not been charged with terrorism.
The brothers have been detained because they supported a group dedicated to overthrowing the regime in Iran.
That group, the Moujahedeen Khalq, or MEK, has been on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations since 1997.
But before 1997, dozens of lawmakers, including Ashcroft, then a U.S. senator from Missouri, supported the group as freedom fighters. As a senator, Ashcroft continued supporting the group even after the State Department determined that it advocated terrorism.
Immigration authorities arrested the Mirmehdis after the FBI investigated a MEK cell in Los Angeles. The only witness at their detention hearing was an FBI agent who testified by telephone that informants told him the Mirmehdis were supporters of MEK, according to court records.
The brothers admit that they attended protests against the Iranian government that U.S. officials say were sponsored by MEK. But they deny being members of the group.
Federal investigators have not produced any evidence to show the Mirmehdis were MEK members, not even after a government informant testified that he recorded between 200 and 300 conversations with cell members, according to court records and attorney Marc Van Der Hout, who is representing the brothers.
"It's outrageous that the government has gotten away with holding them for more than 2 1/2 years without any evidence of terrorism whatsoever," said Van Der Hout, who took the Mirmehdis' case to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He said his clients "were smeared by post-9/11 hysteria."
The FBI investigation of the Los Angeles cell led to the indictment of seven people, five Iranians and two Iranian Americans. They were charged with raising more than $1 million for MEK by soliciting passengers at Los Angeles International Airport.
U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi, however, threw out the indictments in June 2002. He ruled that the State Department's method for designating groups as terrorist organizations was unconstitutional because members were not allowed to challenge the evidence against them. The government has appealed.
Although the Clinton administration declared MEK a terrorist group in 1997, it continued to enjoy wide support from Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
Ashcroft and fellow Missouri Republican Sen. Chris Bond issued a written statement of solidarity with the MEK that was read to a large crowd of demonstrators protesting a speech by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in front of the United Nations in September 2000, Newsweek reported in 2002.
Justice Department spokesman John Nowacki declined to comment except to say that the attorney general agrees with the State Department's decision to include the group in the list of foreign terrorist groups. Nowacki also declined to comment about the Mirmehdi case.
An immigration official familiar with the legal case called it "complicated and convoluted legal wrangling." Confusion over the case is apparent even among Justice Department officials. Charles S. Miller, a department spokesman for immigration litigation, said the Mirmehdis entered the U.S. legally but overstayed their visas. But a government brief says two of them may have entered illegally.
Mostafa, 44, arrived in the U.S. in 1978. Mojtaba, 41, and Mohsen, 36, arrived together in 1992. Mohammed, 31, arrived in 1993. All were arrested in 1999 when they admitted lying in applications for political asylum and were found to be deportable, but deportation orders were not issued.
According to court documents, the two Iranian immigrants who processed the brothers' asylum applications and coached them to lie in their interviews with immigration officers were FBI informants. Both men have criminal records.
Mohsen, Mostafa and Mojtaba were released on $50,000 bond each in August 1999 while their deportation case continued. Mohammed was released on $75,000 bond in September 2000 after an appeal of his bond case.
They were free until Oct. 2, 2001, when they were rearrested after immigration officials determined there were "changed circumstances" in their case. They promptly asked to be re-released on bond, and their request was denied Jan. 9, 2002, by a judge who cited Ashcroft's claim that they were security risks.
The Mirmehdis appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals, which turned them down June 13, 2002, citing the new evidence that the brothers "are associated with a terrorist organization and pose a danger to persons or property."
FBI Agent Christopher Castillo testified that a search of an alleged MEK safe house in Los Angeles produced a list of names that an informant said constituted an MEK cell.
The Mirmehdis' names were on the list, but the brothers said it was an innocent travel log for a June 20, 1997, political rally in Denver sponsored by the National Council of Resistance of Iran, an exile group that opposes the Iranian government. Two of the brothers attended the protest, and U.S. prosecutors used their attendance to bolster the government's argument that the four were MEK supporters.
After their 2001 arrests, the Mirmehdis applied for asylum before two immigration judges. This time, they cited the U.S. government's accusation that they were MEK supporters. The accusations brought them to the attention of Iranian officials, who would surely persecute them if they were returned to Iran, the brothers argued. The judges agreed and ordered immigration officials not to deport them.
One judge said Mohammed Mirmehdi's participation in the Denver rally was protected by the 1st Amendment, and added that the appearance of his name on the alleged cell list and MEK membership was not evidence of terrorist activity.
But an earlier ruling from another judge remained in effect. Issued in January 2002, it said that the brothers should remain in custody because the attorney general considered them security risks. That immigration judge's ruling was upheld by a U.S. magistrate and a U.S. district judge, who denied their release on a habeas corpus petition.
So the Mirmehdis remain locked up at the immigration detention facility in San Pedro, where they continue to battle for their release on bail. Van Der Hout argued before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the brothers should be freed on bond while their immigration case is finalized by U.S. officials. The brothers could be allowed to remain in the U.S., or they could be deported to a third country.
Paul Santos, acting officer in charge of the San Pedro facility, said the Mirmehdis are housed together in a pod for inmates who are low security risks.
The brothers have access to a law library and are allowed to make limited copies of legal documents. They also have almost unrestricted use of telephones, which the Mirmehdis use to keep in daily contact with their lawyers and supporters.
They have hired at least four sets of attorneys since their incarceration, paying them with money from savings and income from rental properties.
The brothers say they had an opportunity to avoid jail if they had agreed to become FBI informants.
In February 2002, the FBI "asked me and Mohammed to cooperate with the FBI and give false testimony [in"> a criminal case of the seven alleged MEK associates" charged with raising money at LAX, said Mostafa Mirmehdi. "I could not satisfy this request. Personally, I do not believe in giving false testimony."
Mohsen Mirmehdi found irony in the fact that his brothers' participation in the Denver rally was used by the U.S. government to keep them locked up.
"The U.S. protested loudly [in 2003"> when the Iranian government attacked and arrested students for protesting on the streets in Tehran. My brothers protested peacefully and legally, but the U.S. says that only proves we are terrorists. Is that strangely ironic?"