Virginia Man Back in U.S. After Court Questions Deportation

deportation israel
Abdelhaleem Ashqar during his 2006 trial. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

A northern Virginia man who says he fears torture at the hands of Israeli authorities is back in the U.S. after a judge’s order forced immigration authorities to reverse his deportation and bring him back from Israel before he ever got off the plane.

Abdelhaleem Ashqar recently served 11 years in prison for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating the Palestinian terror group Hamas. In 2005, he ran to succeed Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority, all while confined to his Alexandria home on house arrest as he awaited trial. He finished fourth in a field of seven.

According to court papers and interviews, U.S. authorities arrested Ashqar on Tuesday and quickly deported him on a chartered flight after misleading him about his need to report to an immigration office to process paperwork.

By Thursday, though, Ashqar, 60, was back in the U.S. He’s now at a detention facility in Bowling Green, Virginia, as his case awaits an expedited ruling from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

The turnaround followed a late night emergency hearing Tuesday in federal court in which the judge inquired about turning around the plane carrying Ashqar mid-flight.

Ultimately, though, the plane landed in Israel, where U.S. officials say they planned to make arrangements to turn him over to Palestinian authorities.

But deportations to Palestinian territory must be conducted through Israel, said Ashqar’s immigration lawyer, Patrick Taurel. So Israel could either intercept and interrogate Ashqar before handing him over to the Palestinians, or the Palestinians might simply hand Ashqar over to the Israelis, Taurel said.

Ashqar, who was born in Yehudah and Shomron and came to the U.S. in 1989 on a temporary visa to study at the University of Mississippi, has a credible fear of abuse at the hands of Israel, Taurel said. Ashqar claims he was imprisoned and beaten by Israeli interrogators in the 1980s after protesting Israeli policies in Yehudah and Shomron.

After the hearing, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III issued a ruling in which he largely said he had no authority to intervene in the deportation. He did say, though, he was concerned that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was not carrying out the deportation properly. Ashqar’s removal order specifies he be deported to Jordan, so Ellis barred immigration officials from turning Ashqar over to Israeli authorities in any way.

In doing so, he stated in a footnote that his ruling “must not be construed in any way as accepting as true petitioner’s (Ashqar’s) claim that he was tortured by Israeli officials in the past and that he has a bona fide fear that he will be tortured.”

ICE officials issued a statement Saturday saying the bureau fully complied with Ellis’ order. The statement said officers returned Ashqar to the U.S. Thursday because they were “prohibited from executing the removal if Ashqar was delivered to Israeli authorities.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, which is defending the government’s actions in court, declined comment.

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