Case stalled months after an aborted deportation to Israel

Abdelhaleem Ashqar sits in his Springfield, Va., home, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, discussing his...
Abdelhaleem Ashqar sits in his Springfield, Va., home, Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, discussing his deportation case. The U.S. government tried to deport him via Israel earlier this year, but a judge’s order forced the U.S. to reverse course on a Tel Aviv tarmac and bring the Palestinian activist back to Virginia while his case gets sorted out. (AP Photo/Matthew Barakat)(WHSV)
Published: Sep. 25, 2019 at 12:28 PM EDT
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The ankle bracelet is again around the leg of Abdelhaleem Ashqar, just as it was nearly 15 years ago when he ran for the presidency of the Palestinian territories from his northern Virginia home.

Now, the bracelet monitors his whereabouts as he waits to be deported, a deportation eagerly sought by both the U.S government and Ashqar himself.

Despite their mutual goal, Ashqar remains in the U.S. with his case at a standstill, months after the government was forced to abort an effort to deport him to Israel that took him all the way to a Tel Aviv tarmac after a judge intervened in an emergency late-night hearing.

So Ashqar, once considered a financier of terrorists by federal prosecutors, is again confined to his home as he and his attorneys work to find a country that will accept him.

"I'd like to leave as soon as possible. Put everything behind me and start a new life," Ashqar said in an interview in his home.

What he is unwilling to do, though, is be deported to Israel or any country that would extradite him to Israel, fearing eventual arrest and torture.

Ashqar, 61, was born in the Palestinian West Bank and came to the U.S. as a student in 1989. He later taught at Howard University, and maintained a high profile as a Palestinian activist. For more than 20 years, he has been the focus of U.S. investigators who believed he was linked to the militant group Hamas and helped them move funds in the U.S.

He was subpoenaed to testify to federal grand juries and given immunity for his testimony. He maintains he had no real information to provide — his time in the Palestinian territory dated to the 1980s, before the U.S. designated Hamas as a terrorist group. But he couldn't bring himself to testify, something he viewed as collaborating. He was jailed for civil contempt, and went on hunger strikes in custody.

Finally, the government charged him with racketeering, criminal contempt and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors said he conspired with other top Hamas leaders in the U.S. to funnel money to the group.

In 2005, while awaiting trial, he ran for president of the Palestinian territories, conducting his campaign from Virginia while under house arrest. He received 3% of the vote and finished fourth in a field of seven.

At trial, a jury acquitted Ashqar of the most serious racketeering charge. But because he refused to testify to the grand jury, he was convicted of criminal contempt and obstruction and drew a surprisingly stiff 11-year prison sentence from the judge.

Freed in June 2017, Ashqar spent 18 months in immigration custody awaiting deportation. He was released in December and spent several months at home with family.

Then, in June, he was ordered to report to an immigration facility in northern Virginia. Both he and his lawyer were assured it was just a routine-check-in. But when he arrived with his family, he was immediately handcuffed, fingerprinted, and sped off to a regional airport and flown to Israel.

His family called his stunned attorney, who filed an emergency court motion asking the government to turn the plane around.

U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III in Alexandria held a late-night hearing by phone. Ellis determined he had no authority to intervene in immigration proceedings, with one big exception: he noted Ashqar's removal order specified he be deported to Jordan. So he ordered U.S officials to not turn Ashqar over to Israel.

Deporting Ashqar to Jordan, though, is not currently an option because Jordan isn't accepting deportees.

Back in the U.S., Ashqar is making contacts and expresses hope that Turkey, Qatar, or some north African country will take him. Thus far, he has had no luck. He is opposed to being deported directly into the Palestinian territories, fearing arrest by Israeli authorities who ultimately control the territories.

The Israeli embassy in Washington didn't return messages seeking comment. In Jerusalem, the Shin Bet security agency referred questions about Ashqar to the U.S.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on Ashqar, referring to their statement in June acknowledging they tried to deport him. ICE says he has been subject to deportation since 2003.

Patrick Taurel, an attorney for Ashqar, said ICE has agreed it won't try to deport Ashqar while he seeks to have his immigration case reopened on appeal. If the case is reopened, Ashqar could seek relief from removal under the Conventions Against Torture, Taurel said. Meanwhile, the lawyer added, "we continue to look for a safe country that will accept Dr. Ashqar."

Hassan Ahmad, an immigration lawyer unconnected to the case, said it's unusual to have a case like Ashqar's where a plane is turned around on the tarmac, but not that unusual for ICE to encounter difficulty completing deportations to certain countries.

"ICE can't get the travel documents, embassies won't cooperate," Ahmad said. "There are a lot of people walking around with removal orders ICE can't effectuate."


Associated Press writers Aron Heller and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.