Agency Seeks to Deport Man In Rape Case Under Appeal

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

BALTIMORE, Sept. 19 -- Immigration officials intend to deport a Liberian man who avoided trial in a child-rape case this summer in Montgomery County primarily because of difficulty in finding him a court interpreter, authorities said Wednesday.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement senior attorney Christopher R. Coxe said the agency will seek to deport Mahamu Kanneh, who was in the United States legally after being granted refugee status as a teenager, regardless of the disposition of the rape case, which is under appeal. Kanneh was arrested in 2004 on charges of raping a 7-year-old relative and abusing another child.

"There is no indication that [Kanneh] would be eligible for relief from removal," Coxe said in immigration court during a bond hearing. A hearing on the deportation issue is scheduled for next month.

U.S. Immigration Judge Elizabeth A. Kessler said immigration officials revoked Kanneh's refugee status last month. The charging document used to detain Kanneh accuses him of entering the country without inspection, but officials provided few details about his entry and refugee status. Refugees typically are able to become permanent residents and U.S. citizens.

Immigration experts said that the government routinely revokes the refugee statuses of people convicted of felonies but that it is unusual to place refugees in deportation proceedings absent a conviction.

Coxe said the government might add immigration charges to the complaint but did not elaborate.

Kanneh, 23, was taken into custody by immigration officials last month after a Montgomery judge denied prosecutors' requests that he be detained pending the appeal of the criminal case.

A county judge dismissed second-degree rape and sex-abuse charges in July filed against Kanneh after finding that his right to a speedy trial had been violated. The trial was repeatedly postponed because the Circuit Court clerk's office struggled to find an interpreter fluent in Vai, the man's native dialect. The case lingered in the court system for about three years before it was dismissed.

Kanneh, handcuffed and dressed in a blue jumpsuit Wednesday, appeared without a lawyer during the immigration hearing. A court interpreter participated by phone.

Kanneh asked the judge to release him on bond in the immigration case, saying that he attended hearings in the rape case and does not pose a danger to the community.

"When the court asked me to go, I went there," he said, speaking in Vai. He said that he wants to return to work and go back to school.

Kanneh traveled to Philadelphia shortly after the criminal charges were dropped but was soon arrested by U.S. marshals for failing to appear at a hearing in Rockville, where the state was seeking to reinstate his bond in the rape case. Kanneh was returned to Montgomery, where a judge reinstated bond but released him. Kanneh was taken into the immigration agency's custody Aug. 28.

Montgomery officials have said Kanneh tried to flee when law enforcement officials found him in Philadelphia.

Kessler declined to set bond in the immigration case, citing the seriousness of the allegations in the criminal case and Kanneh's alleged attempt to elude officers in Philadelphia. "I am concerned that you are a danger to the community and you are a flight risk," the judge said.

The appeals process in the rape case could take more than a year. The case could be difficult for prosecutors, because even if the decision to dismiss the case is overturned, Kanneh's defense attorney would probably say that the additional delay violated his constitutional right to a prompt trial.

Prosecutors said Wednesday that they will monitor the immigration case as they consider whether to drop the appeal.

Montgomery State's Attorney John McCarthy said that "it would be premature" to drop the criminal charges. A key consideration, he said, will be "any potential that he may come back to the country" even if he is deported.

Maryland Deputy Attorney General Katherine Winfree said the state will move forward with the appeal, which is to be heard in January. "We can't predict the outcome or timing of the immigration case," she said.

Kanneh's next hearing in immigration court is set for Oct. 3.

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