SAN FRANCISCO - Shabbir Ahmed, a key figure in the government's ongoing terrorism investigation in Lodi, agreed Monday to be deported to his native Pakistan rather than fight charges that he overstayed his visa.
Ahmed, 39, was denied bond last week by U.S. Immigration Judge Anthony S. Murry, who declared the former Lodi imam a flight risk and a danger to the community. During that four-hour hearing, an FBI agent's testimony linked Ahmed to a plot to recruit and train anti-American terrorists in the San Joaquin County community.
In contrast, Monday's hastily called hearing in Murry's San Francisco courtroom lasted less than five minutes. Without comment, Ahmed agreed to deportation rather than face months in custody while his immigration case is decided. He has been held in Sacramento County jail since his arrest June 6.
After the hearing Monday, government lawyers claimed Ahmed's pending deportation as a victory in the war against terrorism. Ronald E. Le Fevre, chief counsel for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Francisco, described deportation as a tool "to prevent foreign nationals from using this country as a haven for activities that could put the United States at risk."
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"In this instance," Le Fevre continued, "we collectively determined that the best course of action was to use our immigration authorities to remove an individual who is in this country illegally and has been found to pose a threat."
But Ahmed's lawyer said the fact that U.S. officials are permitting his client to leave the United States is an indication that the case against him is weak. Ahmed held a religious visa, which expired last fall. He denies participating in the complicated chain of events outlined by government agents and has not been charged criminally.
"That he is being allowed to leave shows he is innocent. He loves this country, and he loves the American people. He is leaving with a heavy heart," said the lawyer, Saad Ahmad, who met with reporters after the hearing.
After the Aug. 9 bond hearing, the lawyer said, Ahmed realized that he could no longer make a life for himself in America: "The terrorism allegations were baseless, but even so, he felt life as he knew it here was over."
Ahmed is the third Pakistani in the Lodi case to choose to be deported. Two others - Ahmed's mentor, Muhammed Adil Khan, and Khan's son Mohammad Hassan Adil - agreed last month to be deported. They left for Pakistan on Monday morning, according to lawyer Ahmad, who also represented them.
Though no terrorism-related criminal charges were filed against Ahmed or Adil Khan, government investigators described them as recruiters for the jihad - the holy war against enemies of Islam.
In a scenario outlined at the bond hearing last week, FBI agent Gary Schaaf testified that he believes Ahmed came to Lodi in 2002 to help Adil Khan set up a Muslim school. The school, Schaaf said, would be "similar to madrassahs (or Islamic seminaries) in Pakistan, during which students would be spotted and assessed and maybe eventually be ready to commit acts of violence in the U.S."
The FBI agent said two Pakistani Americans - Lodi ice cream vendor Umer Hayat, 47, and his son Hamid, 22 - told agents about the plot. The Hayats, who are charged with making false statements to the FBI about their alleged involvement in an al-Qaida training camp in Pakistan, are in custody in Sacramento County.
The Hayats, whose arrest triggered the Lodi investigation, now deny any terrorist involvement.
The news that Ahmed will be deported distressed Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Sacramento Valley. He questioned the legitimacy of the entire federal investigation in Lodi.
"Unfortunately for Muslims in America these days, you're guilty until proven innocent," Elkarra said. "You can label someone a threat to society without providing the proper evidence. We're concerned especially that the older imam (Adil Khan) was driven out. He was a pioneer in interfaith work.
"The government is sending the wrong message to the Muslim community. If these guys were connected to al-Qaida, then lock them up. File criminal charges against them and lock them up. But don't make reckless charges and ruin people's lives without evidence."
U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott, who is prosecuting the case against the Hayats, defended the deportations as legitimate and necessary.
"The overarching goal in anti-terrorism efforts is to detect, disrupt and prevent potential terrorist activities," Scott said. "It is our considered judgment that this goal is best served in the investigation of Muhammed Adil Khan and Shabbir Ahmed by their deportations to Pakistan, and resulting restrictions on their ability to ever return to the United States.
"Whatever they may have planned in Lodi was never allowed to take hold. Our citizens are safer as a result of Khan and Ahmed no longer being on U.S. soil."
Ahmed will remain in custody until he leaves for Pakistan, where he will rejoin his wife and three daughters at their home in Islamabad, his lawyer said.
About the writer:
- The Bee's Dorothy Korber can be reached at (916) 321-1061 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Bee staff writers Denny Walsh and Stephen Magagnini contributed to this report.