Egyptian's fate in hands of U.S. judge

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Shortly after midnight tonight, Sameh "Sami" Khouzam might find himself hustled by immigration agents from his cell at the York County Prison onto an airplane back to Egypt.

The Coptic Christian Egyptian national is accused of murder in his homeland. His case pits the U.S. government against its own signing of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and has touched off a flurry of last-minute attempts by human rights groups to halt the deportation.

A federal judge was to determine today whether Mr. Khouzam stays in the United States or is returned to Egypt. Mr. Khouzam's lawyers have requested a stay of his deportation until June 17.

The case against Mr. Khouzam, 38, of Cairo, has been grinding through the U.S. judicial system for almost a decade. It was given new life last month when the government tried to circumvent a 2004 decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York that allowed Mr. Khouzam to stay in the United States because he "will more likely than not be tortured if he is deported to Egypt."

After the U.S. State Department received "diplomatic assurances" this year from the Egyptian government that Mr. Khouzam would not be tortured if returned to Egypt, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security decided to resume the deportation, despite the court's previous rulings.

"This is yet another example of the Bush administration trying to do an end run around international treaty obligations and court decisions," said Witold Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and one of the lawyers representing Mr. Khouzam. "Egypt told the State Department they would play nice. Why would the government believe that?"

Amnesty International urged its members yesterday to write to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to halt the deportation.

Mr. Khouzam has endured more than eight years of detention in the United States since he fled Egypt in 1998 after authorities in Cairo said he killed a woman. Upon his arrival in the United States, Mr. Khouzam was told his visitor's visa was revoked mid-flight and that he was going to be deported to face the charges against him.

He immediately filed for religious asylum, fearing that he would be persecuted and subjected to torture and abuse if sent back.

The United States has persistently tried to return Mr. Khouzam to Egypt, despite reports by the State Department that security forces and police use systematic torture throughout their facilities to elicit confessions from suspects and intimidate family members.

"The government throughout this process has maintained that Mr. Khouzam should be returned to his homeland," said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Carlson, who declined further comment.

Mr. Khouzam's lawyers, family and friends allege that the charges against him in Egypt are trumped up and another means by the government to punish the religious minority that Coptics represent.

Kathleen Lucas, a friend of Mr. Khouzam, said Mr. Khouzam, freed in 2006 by the New York court decision, worked for the past year as controller for a multimillion-dollar property management firm in Lancaster.

Mr. Khouzam's mother, Georgette, who was granted asylum in the United States, said: "This is not right. Anyone with a beating heart, any human being, should stop this deportation," she said in Arabic. "I'm alone in this country without him. I'm living alone. He is my universe."


Moustafa Ayad can be reached at mayad@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1731.


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