This past Memorial Day, Sameh Khouzam celebrated the holiday like many Americans -- by spending the day with friends in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where he lives and works as a controller of a real estate company. The next morning, he went to the York County Jail for a routine check-in with immigration officials -- where he was abruptly taken in to custody and informed that he was to be deported in 72 hours.
An Egyptian Christian, Sameh Khouzam fled religious persecution in Egypt only to discover that the United States government is going to send him back -- even after a U.S. federal appeals court found that "it is more likely than not that he will be tortured." The government claims it is relying on "diplomatic assurances" from Egyptian officials that Sameh will not be tortured.
The United States is increasingly using such assurances to avoid its treaty obligations under the Convention Against Torture, which was ratified by the United States in 1994. The convention prohibits the U.S. government from transferring a person "to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture."
In 1998, Mr. Khouzam escaped to the United States, seeking asylum from religious persecution in Egypt, where he says he was repeatedly tortured by Egyptian officials because he is a Christian. He has been beaten, sodomized with a rubber hose, and stabbed with a screwdriver-like instrument. In 2000, the Board of Immigration Appeals credited a Pennsylvania physician's conclusion that Mr. Khouzam's multiple medical scars were consistent with his account of torture.
Mr. Khouzam's family members have also been the subject of systematic assault and persecution by Egyptian officials -- his wife and mother were abducted and detained on separate occasions, his wife was repeatedly raped for three days, and his brother was forced to denounce his Christian faith.
Instead of being granted asylum, Mr. Khouzam was jailed by the U.S. government based on a claim by Egypt that he was wanted for murder -- despite the absence of credible evidence such as an autopsy report. He remained locked up in prison for eight years. Six years into his detention, an appeals court found that he could not be deported to Egypt because he was likely to be tortured there. Despite that finding, Mr. Khouzam remained in detention for another two years until a federal district court ordered that he had to be released because his removal to Egypt was not reasonably foreseeable.
Torture in Egypt is a well-known fact. The U.S. State Department has documented numerous accounts of torture and abuse of prisoners by Egyptian security forces and other government entities. The State Department has also documented widespread persecution and discrimination against Christians and other religious minorities in Egypt.
Despite these facts, the Department of Homeland Security is trying to do an end-run around the law by putting Sameh Khouzam on a plane to Egypt based on a fingers-crossed promise. But there is scant evidence that "diplomatic assurances" will protect Sameh. In fact, past experiences would indicate otherwise. The U.N. Committee Against Torture and the U.N. Human Rights Committee found that Ahmed Agiza (who, with the ACLU, recently filed a lawsuit against Jeppesen Dataplan Inc. for helping to facilitate illegal "extraordinary rendition" flights) was tortured after Sweden sent him to Egypt based on similar flimsy promises. Likewise, when the U.S. government detained and forcibly rendered Maher Arar (a Canadian citizen) to Syria, he was beaten, punched, threatened with "the chair" and assaulted repeatedly with a rubber electrical cable.
Accepting promises from countries like Syria and Egypt, who maintain full and active torture chambers, is tantamount to closing one's eyes to acts of torture.
Sameh's case is so compelling that it has garnered support from an assortment of groups that don't often agree on many issues: Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Robert Casey (D-Pa.); Congressman Joseph Pitts (R-Pa); the National Council of Churches; the National Association of Evangelicals; the American Civil Liberties Union; Traditional Values Coalition; Human Rights Watch; American Center for Law and Justice; and Concerned Women for America. They have all called for the U.S. to halt deportation proceedings against Sameh.
We can no longer allow the erosion of our core values of freedom and fairness to continue. That's why the ACLU will join human rights groups and thousands of Americans on June 26, 2007 in Washington, DC for a Day of Action to Restore Law and Justice. We only hope it will not be too late for Sameh Khouzam.