Los Angeles Times
A judge has given the U.S. until Feb. 20 to free the Mirmehdi brothers, held since 2001 in an immigration case.
By H.G. Reza, Times Staff Writer
Confined to the Terminal Island immigration jail for more than three years, the Mirmehdi brothers cannot help wondering whether they are somehow beyond the law.
The federal government considers the four Iranians, outspoken opponents of Iran's Islamic regime, security threats with links to terrorism and wants them deported.
While there's been no shortage of due process in this strange and convoluted case, the two sides remain miles apart on whether justice has been served.
The Mirmehdi brothers came to the United States and obtained government work permits years ago. Later, they ran afoul of immigration authorities, were arrested and faced deportation for lying on political asylum applications about when and how they had entered the country.
Despite their legal problems, they were released on bail in 1999 and went on with their lives, earning a handsome living selling real estate in the San Fernando Valley as they fought the government's slow-moving efforts to deport them.
While their deportation case was under appeal, the federal government arrested them in October 2001 as part of a nationwide crackdown on Middle Easterners known to be in the country illegally following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At the time, the government said it had new evidence alleging the four had terrorist ties.
Legal experts said they did not know of another case where an illegal immigrant arrested in the wake of the 9/11 attacks had spent more time behind bars before being deported.
Mohsen, Mojtaba, Mohammed and Mostafa Mirmehdi have been incarcerated and ordered deported by the Department of Homeland Security under two sections of the Patriot Act on grounds that they were linked to a terrorist organization. The law does not require the government to prove that they had engaged in terrorism, only that such an association exists.
The government continues to hold the four and faces a Feb. 20 deadline for releasing them even though the Board of Immigration Appeals and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals have recently found that government attorneys had failed to prove any link to terrorists.
Whether the Department of Homeland Security will comply with the upcoming deadline and release them on bail or try to offer new evidence in another attempt to tie them to terrorists is unknown, the brothers and their attorney say.
The government's hard line is all the more remarkable because the terrorist group to which the brothers are allegedly tied, the Moujahedeen Khalq, or MEK, is dedicated to the overthrow of Iran's ruling clerics. As such, the MEK enjoys widespread support from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, despite its inclusion on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
"Our point is that we aren't going to allow illegal aliens with ties to terrorist organizations a first shot to take terrorist acts," said William Odencrantz, the top lawyer for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, in Laguna Niguel.
The department's mission is to protect the United States, he said, and "we don't have to let them commit the act before they are subject to detention."
Georgetown University law professor David Cole, an expert on immigration law and on the Patriot Act, said the government's reason for keeping the Mirmehdis locked up "would be a well-founded fear if there's any basis for believing they in fact pose a threat to national security. But in a case where the courts have found exactly the opposite, there doesn't seem to be any foundation for that fear."
Marc Van Der Hout, the Mirmehdis' attorney, said the Bush administration simply tries to "ignore the courts" when they rule in ways it doesn't like. "The Supreme Court said you can't hold someone indefinitely just because he's deportable," Van Der Hout said.
That ruling came less than three months before the Sept. 11 attacks. In a case called Zadvydas vs. Davis, the high court said the government has six months to remove an immigrant once he is ordered deported. If deportation is unlikely, the immigrant has to be released unless the government produces new evidence, such as ties to terrorism, to continue keeping him in custody.
In the Mirmehdis' case, the six-month clock began ticking in August, when the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that the government had failed to prove the brothers had engaged in terrorist activity. The appeals board also upheld decisions by two immigration judges who ruled that, while they did not qualify for political asylum because of lies they told on their applications, the government cannot deport them to Iran because they would be persecuted or tortured.
The government's only alternative to bail would be finding another country to take the brothers, but that seems unlikely, immigration experts said, because of the allegations they are linked to terrorists.
To the Mirmehdis, bail seems reasonable, given their ties to the community, their undiminished desire for political asylum and their fervent opposition to the Iranian regime, which is part of what President Bush has called an "axis of evil."
"If we had been convicted of something, we would know our sentences. But for three years we've gone month to month, not knowing when we are getting out," said Mostafa Mirmehdi, 45, during a recent interview at the Terminal Island jail.
Despite the government's unwavering stance, the brothers say they hope to return to their real estate jobs. Mostafa Mirmehdi said he continues to make mortgage payments on his empty house in Van Nuys.
"I have a line of credit to pay my mortgage and credit cards, which I haven't used in three years," he said. "I don't want to ruin my credit, because I believe we will be released one day."
Although raised as Muslims, the Mirmehdis have found Christianity during their lengthy stay in jail. All of them say they read Christian literature, and Mohsen, 37, said he attended Catholic services regularly.
"I still believe in God, and that truth will set us free one day," he said.
"Every day is like a roller coaster," added Mojtaba, 41. "Some days you have hope of being released, other days you don't."
According to court documents, he was arrested by the Iranian regime in 1981 and served three years in prison, where he was tortured. Later, he served in the Iranian army for 2 1/2 years.
The brothers deny any association with the MEK. They and their lawyers said the FBI approached them "four or five" times after their arrests, offering them freedom if they agreed to work as informants.
"It was clear to us that they wanted us to give false testimony against others," said Mostafa." The DHS wants us to give up. That's their intention," said Mohammed, 34. "They want us to surrender. But we believe we're right. That's why we continue fighting."
After a mandatory 90-day review of their case in November, the Department of Homeland Security said the four would not be released because they were a threat to national security and a flight risk.
In December, the department modified its position, describing them instead as "a danger to the community" and a flight risk.
Van Der Hout, the Mirmehdis' attorney, said it was "outrageous for the government to continue saying they are a national security risk when the Board of Immigration Appeals said the opposite."
Odencrantz countered that their alleged ties to the MEK made them a national security threat. "The brothers want to be released. We don't want to release them," he said. "We have until Feb. 20 to fish or cut bait."
When they were arrested in 1999, the Mirmehdis admitted lying in applications for political asylum but said it was because they inadvertently missed the application deadline.
According to court documents, two Iranian immigrants who helped the brothers prepare their applications and coached them to lie in their interviews with immigration officers were FBI informants with criminal records. When the Mirmehdis were re-arrested in 2001, the informants told the FBI that they were MEK members who supported the group's anti-Iranian terrorist agenda.
The primary evidence used to tie the four to the MEK was a list of names seized in a raid of a suspected MEK safe house in Los Angeles in February 2001. The government said the list, which included the Mirmehdis, was a roster of MEK cell members. The brothers said it was a list of individuals planning to attend a rally in protest of the Iranian government.
Two of the brothers admitted attending an MEK rally in Denver in 1997, before the group was put on the State Department's terrorist list.
An immigration judge subsequently ruled that attendance at the rally was protected by the 1st Amendment and that their names on the safe house list did not establish that they were linked to the MEK.
In the interview at the Terminal Island lockup, the Mirmehdis said the government falsely accused them of being MEK members to keep them locked up.
Their years in custody have taken an emotional, physical and financial toll on them. They have spent more than $150,000 on lawyers and depleted their savings. They are either losing their hair or it is turning gray, and three of them are on antidepressants. The fourth brother quit taking the medication because of its side effects.
The brothers spread photos from happier times on a table. There was a picture of Mojtaba receiving a New England Patriots jacket for his birthday, along with photos taken during excursions the brothers took to Solvang, Yosemite and Arizona.
They are bitter that the government used Mostafa's and Mohammed's attendance at a 1997 rally against the Iranian government to justify their detention.
"We went to a pro-democracy rally against one of the axis of evil," Mohsen said, speaking for his brothers. "How can that be a terrorist act?"