Iraqi man held in Sacramento in extradition fight now facing criminal probe in US

Federal defenders Ben Galloway and Rachelle Barbour, left, asked for a postponement for the case of Omar Ameen, center, in court on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. Ameen’s translator sits at right.
Federal defenders Ben Galloway and Rachelle Barbour, left, asked for a postponement for the case of Omar Ameen, center, in court on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. Ameen’s translator sits at right. Special to The Bee

The Iraqi man being held in Sacramento as federal prosecutors fight to extradite him back to his home country to face a murder charge is now under criminal investigation in the United States.

The disclosure came Wednesday in federal court in Sacramento, where U.S. Magistrate Judge Edmund F. Brennan agreed to a one-month delay in the start of an extradition hearing for Omar Ameen, a Sacramento truck mechanic arrested last August and accused of being a terrorist leader in Iraq.

Brennan agreed to push the extradition hearing back to May 28 while Ameen’s lawyers dig for more evidence overseas to prove their claim that he was in Turkey at the time the murder allegedly occurred in Iraq nearly five years ago.

But Brennan rejected a request from defense attorneys and from The Sacramento Bee that he unseal search warrant documents associated with Ameen’s arrest. Brennan noted that such documents do not have to be unsealed while a criminal probe is continuing.

“The investigations are still ongoing,” Brennan said, but did not elaborate.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Audrey Hemesath agreed in court that Ameen is under investigation in this country, but gave no further explanation.

Ameen currently faces no charges in the United States, but may be under investigation for allegedly lying to immigration officials when he entered the country as a refugee in November 2014.

Ben Galloway, one of the federal defenders fighting to keep Ameen from being sent back to Iraq, said after court that charging Ameen with a crime in this country would give him more protections than extraditing him.

“If a criminal investigation is truly ongoing, the U.S. Government should indict our client here so he can have a full, fair hearing with due-process rights,” Galloway said. “Instead, the U.S. punted this weak case to Iraq to circumvent the protections of our laws.”

Prosecutors and Ameen’s lawyers have been engaged in a bare-knuckle legal fight over how much evidence the government must turn over before an extradition hearing in the case is held.

Ameen is accused of being a well-known ISIS and al-Qaida leader who led a convoy of trucks to the home of an Iraqi police officer on June 22, 2014, and shot the victim to death.

The Iraqi government has asked for him to be extradited back to his homeland to face trial. Brennan has ordered an extradition hearing that will determine whether there is enough evidence to recommend he be handed over to the Iraqis. A final decision must be made by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Ameen’s federal defenders say the U.S. government has evidence that proves Ameen was in Turkey at the time of the slaying in Iraq and could not possibly have committed the killing.

“It is not justice to seek to extradite Mr. Ameen to Iraq when the U.S. government holds evidence proving that he could not have committed the crime of which he is charged,” Ameen’s lawyers wrote in documents filed in court Tuesday.

His lawyers also claim that information the government obtained from at least one witness in Iraq came after that person received “significant immigration and relocation benefits in return for his/her statements against Mr. Ameen, even though this witness’s statements contained inconsistencies.”

“The defense knows that Iraqi witnesses have lied to the FBI and that those lies have found their way into government filings ...,” Ameen’s lawyers wrote in documents filed in court Tuesday. “The defense knows that false statements by witnesses against Mr. Ameen have found their way into the Extradition Packet in a deadly game of telephone.”

Prosecutors flatly deny the defense claims, stating in papers filed Tuesday that “the government does not possess ... any evidence that would prove Ameen was in Turkey at the time of the alleged murder (or) any evidence that would prove Ameen has an alibi for an alleged murder.”

“The defense has conflated the government’s pleadings in the hopes of leaving the impression that the United States is hiding evidence that would obliterate probable cause,” prosecutors wrote. “There is no such evidence – not in the extradition materials, and not in the government’s criminal investigation.”

The government’s attorneys say Ameen’s lawyers simply are stalling for time in a search for “inadmissible, irrelevant evidence far afield from the question that will be facing the court (during an extradition hearing): Is there probable cause in the extradition request to support the allegation of murder.”

Defense lawyers have said the case could end up with Ameen facing execution if he is sent back to face trial in Iraq, and much of the fight has been over the government’s insistence on keeping some materials filed under seal because of national security concerns.

The defense has argued that the materials must be unsealed, and The Sacramento Bee filed a motion to intervene to seek the unsealing of documents. Prosecutors objected, but the judge agreed to allow The Bee to intervene.

Prosecutors eventually agreed to the unsealing of most documents in the case, but the defense request for the release of search warrant affidavits that led to his arrest last August was rejected Wednesday.

Bee attorney Aaron Field filed documents Wednesday joining in the defense efforts to get the search warrant papers unsealed and arguing that such a move “would be harmless.”

“When the government initiated this proceeding, it ended its investigation and any related need for secrecy,” Field wrote. “It chose to seek extradition, and it cannot now withhold warrant materials based on unsubstantiated speculation that, if that fails, it might indict Mr. Ameen under domestic law.”

In the end, Brennan disagreed.

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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.