Attorneys: Feds have evidence that exonerates Sacramento man accused of being ISIS fighter

Omar Abdulsattar Ameen, 45, seen in this undated photo, was arrested in Sacramento and was to appear in federal court Wednesday Aug. 15, 2018, as part of extradition proceedings to return him to Iraq to face trial on a charge of premeditated murder.
Omar Abdulsattar Ameen, 45, seen in this undated photo, was arrested in Sacramento and was to appear in federal court Wednesday Aug. 15, 2018, as part of extradition proceedings to return him to Iraq to face trial on a charge of premeditated murder. U.S. Attorney's Office

Legally, the deck has always been stacked against Omar Ameen in his fight to avoid being extradited back to Iraq to face charges that he killed a police officer there in 2014.

The 45-year-old Sacramento resident has been jailed since his August arrest.

Under the rules of extradition hearings, Ameen has no right to cross-examine witnesses who may be called in his scheduled April 29 hearing, prosecutors say.

He has no right to confront his accusers, no right to a speedy trial and no expectation that a U.S. court will determine whether he is guilty of the charge he faces overseas.

But does he have a right to see evidence the U.S. government has collected that may prove his innocence?

His lawyers say he does, and have been fighting for months against a level of secrecy, sealed filings and redacted documents that they say “would be laughable if it was not so critical.”

“The government has conceded that it has evidence that Mr. Ameen did not commit this murder,” federal defenders Ben Galloway and Rachelle Barbour argue in a motion filed in federal court in Sacramento last month that seeks the release of government-held documents.

“This jibes with every fact disclosed by defense investigation and research into the facts of this case. This issue must be addressed openly in court, not shrouded in secrecy.”

Ameen’s lawyers say the issue is critical, that if Ameen is sent back to Iraq he faces the near-certainty of being hanged for a crime they say he did not commit.

In court filings, his lawyers argue that Ameen was not in Iraq at the time of the June 22, 2014, slaying of a police officer by ISIS fighters traveling in a caravan.

Instead, they argue, Ameen was in Turkey at the time working to win the right to enter the United States as a refugee, and they contend the government has evidence to back that up, including the identity of an “alibi witness” who could confirm Ameen could not have been in Iraq at the time of the slaying.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Sacramento has declined to comment on the Ameen case.

But court filings by prosecutors portray Ameen, a truck mechanic who lived in an Arden Arcade apartment on Eastern Avenue with his family, as a terrorist leader who was involved for years as a member of al-Qaida and ISIS and committed roadside bombings and other violent acts.

FBI and sheriff's officers execute a search warrant at an Arden Arcade apartment Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2018.

They contend that he lied to immigration authorities about his background to gain entry to the United States in November 2014.

They also argue that U.S. Magistrate Judge Edmund F. Brennan has very limited powers in deciding whether Ameen should be sent back, noting that the final decision must be made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Prosecutors have filed various documents under seal with the court, and have argued that national security concerns require some of the secrecy.

In two months of litigation, Ameen’s defense attorneys have won some of their arguments that documents should be unsealed, including one in which prosecutors conceded that “the government had in its possession certain evidence which in a criminal case could be considered exculpatory.”

But the defense notes that other matters remain secret, including the transcripts of two closed court hearings in the case in which the media and public were excluded.

Lawyers for The Sacramento Bee also have objected to the secrecy, filing a motion seeking a March 20 hearing to argue for “unsealing all judicial records in this proceeding in their entirety.”

“The public has a right to know and an interest in knowing how its government responds to allegations of murder by the Republic of Iraq against refugees and others living in the United States,” Bee attorney Karl Olson argued in his motion.

“This case is poised to shed light on matters of public interest: how the government responds to extradition requests from foreign nations; the state of the justice system in the Republic of Iraq, a government born of our adventure abroad in search of monsters to destroy; the possibility that Mr. Ameen was able to conceal his background during the refugee vetting process; the possibility that many Sacramento area residents spent years living alongside a former member of ISIS; and the rationale for the government not providing exculpatory evidence to Mr. Ameen,” Olson wrote.

Prosecutors on Friday filed objections to allowing The Bee to intervene, arguing that the motion should have been filed earlier and declaring that “the government does not oppose the unsealing sought by The Sacramento Bee.”

Meanwhile, Ameen’s defense lawyers have dispatched an investigator to Turkey to search for evidence that he was there when the Iraqi officer was killed, and have sought access to Ameen’s Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts, as well as records from his Turkish cell phone account.

But they maintain that the continued secrecy in the name of national security is limiting their ability to provide a full defense for their client.

“Whether the government is prepared to acknowledge it or not, it is clear that some part of the U.S. government possess evidence that shows Mr. Ameen was in Turkey at the time of the offense,” they argued in a Feb. 26 filing. “It has tried to hide the existence of this evidence from the press and the public.

“It has tried to tiptoe around this evidence, providing the minimum necessary to put the defense on notice. What it has failed to do is provide the evidence itself.”

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Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues, including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.