They waited more than a thousand days for good news, and on a chilly February afternoon it came: A guard at the Terminal Island immigration jail walked into the dorm room of the four Mirmehdi brothers and said they were being released.
It seemed that their run as four of the longest-held detainees since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was ending. The Iranian-born brothers -- Mostafa, 45, Mojtaba, 41, Mohsen, 37, and Mohammed, 34 -- hustled downstairs to a processing room at the jail, near Long Beach, Calif. Authorities handed them the clothes they had been wearing when they were arrested, in October 2001, on suspicion of being members of an Iranian opposition group the State Department lists as a terrorist organization. Later, authorities handed them something else: a list of 13 conditions to sign before their release.
The Iranian-born Mirmehdi brothers, who have been held since October 2001, are taken back to the detention facility at the San Pedro Federal Processing Center in California.
(Photos Michael Macor -- San Francisco Chronicle)
As they read the conditions, Mohsen Mirmehdi said, the light left their eyes. Considering some of them too strict, the brothers refused to sign -- and went back to jail.
But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has matched the brothers' determination with its own, in a case that underscores the government's powers of detention even after a Supreme Court ruling that immigrants in the Mirmehdis' circumstances cannot be held indefinitely.
ICE began reviewing the brothers' objections this week. Meanwhile, their detention has stretched to 41 months.
Exactly how they arrived at this pass takes some explaining.
Their case dates to 1999, when the government found that they had filed false applications for asylum here, but released them on bond while considering what to do with them. In October 2001, they were detained without bail under the USA Patriot Act because of what authorities said was "new evidence" that they were members of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK), which seeks to overthrow the Iranian government.
An immigration judge accepted the evidence the next year, but in August 2004 an appeals board overturned that ruling, saying the government's evidence was questionable and the brothers represented no threat to U.S. security. That ruling undercut the reason for holding the brothers under the Patriot Act.
Still, the Mirmehdis could be deported for immigration infractions, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said.
But not to Iran. Immigration judges ruled that they could not be deported there because of the U.S. government's allegations involving them and MEK make it likely that they would face persecution and perhaps torture. So ICE began seeking a third country to take them.
Hence the standoff. As the result of a 2001 Supreme Court ruling, ICE had six months after the Mirmehdis were found not to be a security threat to deport or release them. Facing a Feb. 20 deadline, the agency invoked a rule that allows it to attach conditions to any release.
"It's really absurd," said Marc Van Der Hout, lead attorney for the brothers. "We have an agency that has run amok. It took several years and other courts intervening to find there is no basis to these allegations" concerning the Mirmehdis and the MEK.
Kice said ICE is adamant about enforcing the conditions. "We want to ensure that these brothers continue to be available, should we get permission from a third country to remove them," she said.
Among the conditions the brothers found objectionable were provisions that would bar them from venturing more than 30 miles from their San Fernando Valley home without written permission, changing their address without approval, and contacting anyone with a criminal record or suspicious background.