x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Coptic Christian sits in fearful limbo

A man who says he was tortured in Egypt for his religious beliefs appears in court to keep from being sent back.

Sameh Khouzam embraces Susan Hazlitt, a friend, after his release from the York County Prison this year.
Sameh Khouzam embraces Susan Hazlitt, a friend, after his release from the York County Prison this year.

WASHINGTON // After a decade in the United States, the majority spent in detention centres, an Egyptian man was back in federal court this week to continue his battle to avoid being sent home, where he claims he will be tortured. US officials want to return Sameh Khouzam to Egypt and say they have received "diplomatic assurances" from the government there that he will be safe from torture - assurances Mr Khouzam's lawyers and, earlier, a US district court judge, have said are insufficient because they are vague and have not been subject to a judicial review.

A federal appeals court ruled in 2004 that Mr Khouzam, a Coptic Christian who said he was tortured in Egypt for his religious beliefs, should be protected from deportation under the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The human rights treaty, to which the United States is a signatory, says no state will send an individual to another when there are "substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture".

But the US justice department has sought to send him back based on what it considers reliable assurances from Egypt that he will not be. On Monday, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia heard arguments in the case, brought on appeal by the justice department. A decision in the case is not expected for several weeks, if not months. Charles Miller, a justice department spokesman, said: "Now it's in the hands of the court. We have to wait and see what the court does."

Mr Khouzam fled Egypt in 1998 and sought religious asylum in the United States. He said he was tortured - beaten and sodomised, including with a rubber hose - because he rebuffed attempts to convert to Islam. But his case is even more complex: Egypt claims he is a convicted murderer. Mr Khouzam was immediately detained after arriving in the United States in connection with the claim he had killed a woman in Egypt - an accusation the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which is representing him in court, maintains is false.

"They trumped up charges against him," Amrit Singh, a staff lawyer at the ACLU, said after the court hearing on Monday. Mr Khouzam is alleged to have been convicted of murder in Egypt in absentia, but there is no indication of any evidence against him or that a trial even took place, Ms Singh said. He has since spent the vast majority of his time in the United States in custody in various immigration detention centres while his deportation case has meandered its way through the courts. He was released, by court order, in 2006, but taken into custody again in May last year after he showed up for a routine check with immigration officials, according to the ACLU.

He was then notified that his protection under the UN Convention Against Torture was being revoked and that he faced deportation within 72 hours. Judge Thomas Vanaskie, of the US District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, issued an emergency stay. Mr Khouzam was freed after the same judge ruled in January that he should be released. In that ruling, Mr Vanaskie wrote that "a human being does not forfeit the right to be free from torture because he is ineligible for admission into this country" and that the diplomatic assurances the US government has supposedly received from Egypt should be subject to some sort of review.

"The fact that this matter implicates the foreign affairs of the United States does not insulate the executive branch action from judicial review," he wrote. Monday's hearing was based on the justice department's appeal of that ruling. Joseph Pitts, a Republican congressman, sent a letter to the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, asking that his deportation be cancelled. He also took to the floor of the US House of Representatives last summer to deliver remarks in which he described torture methods the state department claims Egypt has used on its own citizens.

"It is deeply disturbing that the US Department of State and Department of Homeland Security would, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, accept at face value a promise from the Egyptian government," he said. Robert Casey, a Democratic senator, has also written to the head of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, saying the diplomatic assurances were insufficient. @Email:eniedowski@thenational.ae