Evidence being used against him in the Department of Homeland Security's effort to deport him is the product of torture and is not credible, a Hamas-connected imam testified Tuesday in a Newark, N.J. immigration court.
Mohammad Qatanani is imam at the Islamic Center of Passaic County. Immigration officials have been fighting to deport him since 2006, alleging he failed to disclose connections with Hamas when he applied for permanent residency. When he came to the United States 10 years earlier, he claimed he had never been arrested or belonged to any terrorist groups.
That history makes Qatanani subject to deportation, DHS says.
Tuesday's hearing centered on Qatanani's October 1993 arrest and conviction by an Israeli military court on charges he provided support to Hamas. He claims Israeli authorities detained him and never charged him.
"No lawyer prior to 2008 ever told me that I had a conviction," Qatanani said.
U.S. Immigration Judge Judge Alberto Reifkohl ruled in 2008 that the bulk of the evidence and testimony introduced by the Department of Homeland Security was not credible and granted Qatanani permanent residency, better known as a "green card."
The Justice Department's Board of Immigration Appeals sent the case back to Reifkohl in October 2009, finding that he erred rejecting the credibility of evidence and government testimony.
In addition, DHS attorneys bolstered some of the evidence obtained from Israeli officials, including two confessions which include statements Qatanani made about his Hamas connection. Three additional witness statements came from people who told Israeli officials that Qatanani recruited them to join Hamas.
Qatanani claims he never was given translations of the Hebrew-language Israeli court records and never knew what they alleged. "There is no confession to my understanding" Qatanani said Tuesday.
He also disputed that the signatures on the documents were his, saying instead they were "similar" to his signature. DHS evidence was able to match the fingerprints on the documents to Qatanani.
He claims he was mistreated in Israeli custody, but never signed any documents he thought were confessions, describing them as "finishing papers."
The legal standard in immigration court is less stringent than a criminal conviction. This means DHS only needs to show that Qatanani had associations with Hamas that he hid on his visa application. Under immigration law, the Qatanani has the burden of proof to show he is not a terrorist, said Department of Homeland Security Deputy Chief Counsel Chris Brundage.
It's impossible for Qatanani to get around the fact he lied when he said he never had been arrested, Brundage said.
No ruling was issued before the hearing recessed. It is scheduled to resume next month.