February 7, 2006

Asylum detainee released after eight years

By Alan Elsner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An Egyptian who spent almost eight
years in American jails without ever being convicted of a crime
walked free on Tuesday after a federal judge ordered his
release over the objections of the U.S. government.

Sameh Khouzam boarded a plane in Cairo to seek political
asylum in the United States on February 11, 1998. He was
arrested at John F. Kennedy airport in New York and had been
held in jail ever since.

Khouzam's detention of seven years and 361 days, possibly
the longest ever served by an asylum seeker who has never been
convicted of a crime, ended on Tuesday at 2 p.m. EST, when he
was released from the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, New
Jersey on the order of U.S. District Judge Harry Cavanaugh.

It was the first time in nearly eight years he had set foot
outside prison without being handcuffed or shackled.

Khouzam was too emotional to speak much. "I'm still in
shock. I can't believe I'm out," he told supporters.

Human rights activists said Khouzam's case was an extreme
example of what can happen to people coming to the United
States seeking political asylum.

Asylum-seekers arriving in the United States without proper
papers are routinely jailed while their cases are heard and
they lack many of the constitutional rights afforded U.S.
citizens, including the right to a lawyer.

At least one other detainee, Peter Ali, who came from
Guyana, has been held in jail for over five years fighting for
the right to stay in the United States.

Detention that lasts for months or years is not uncommon.

"Many asylum seekers are highly traumatized people who have
survived torture and other severe abuses for whom prolonged
detention in jail is particularly harmful," said Bill Frelick
of Human Rights Watch.

Khouzam's legal troubles are not over. The U.S. government
still wants to deport him back to Egypt and says it is trying
to obtain assurances from the Egyptian government that he would
not be tortured if he was returned there.

A certified public accountant, Khouzam once worked at the
U.S. embassy in Cairo and was the internal auditor for the
American University of Cairo for two years. In 1997, he fled
Egypt with his wife to escape religious persecution against
Coptic Christians.


He returned to Cairo in 1998 to bring his mother to the
United States, but his visa was revoked while his plane was in
the air when Egyptian authorities told the United States he was
charged with a murder in Egypt.

Khouzam has always denied the murder charges. His mother
was eventually granted political asylum.

"There is no autopsy report nor any physical evidence
whatsoever of the alleged crime. The legitimacy of these
criminal accusations is particularly questionable given that
Egypt has not sought the petitioner's extradition from the
United States despite the serious nature of the charges,"
Khouzam's lawyers said in one of many court filings.

Government lawyers argued that Khouzam had to remain in
custody because he posed a flight risk. "On March 25, 2005, the
agency again decided to continue Khouzam's detention based upon
his risk of flight, his threat to the community and the belief
that his removal was significantly likely in the foreseeable
future," the government said in a July 2005 filing.

Judge Cavanaugh rejected the argument but stipulated that
Khouzam would live in York, Pennsylvania and report regularly
to the Department of Homeland Security's immigration and
customs enforcement office there.

One administration official, who asked not to be named,
said he could not comment on specific cases but did not believe
asylum seekers were incarcerated for unreasonable periods of
time. "The years of litigation just demonstrate there is due
process for these people," he said.