Arrested N.Va. men's deportation from Pakistan slowed

A Pakistani police officer searches the luggage of the arrested American Muslims.
A Pakistani police officer searches the luggage of the arrested American Muslims. (Shakil Adil/associated Press)
By Jerry Markon, Shaiq Hussain and Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Pakistani court on Monday ruled that the five Northern Virginia men arrested in that country cannot be deported until a judge reviews the case, potentially complicating the handover of the men to U.S. authorities, legal and political experts said.

The high court in Lahore, where the Americans are being held, gave the Pakistani government until Thursday to submit a detailed report about the case, and it barred the FBI from participating in the investigation. The court ruled on a petition from a Pakistani human rights activist known for filing legal briefs on behalf of terrorism suspects.

Pakistani officials played down the ruling's significance, saying that they were continuing to coordinate with U.S. officials and that the Americans would eventually be returned to the United States to face possible criminal charges. In the end, experts said, the Pakistani government is likely to get its way in the case of the five men, who all are Muslims from the Alexandria area. They were arrested last Tuesday near Lahore and are being investigated for possible terrorist ties. No one has been charged.

Experts said the ruling reflects many Pakistanis' sensitivities to the growing U.S. troop presence in the region and the assertiveness of the country's increasingly independent judiciary. Pakistani judges have defied the will of the elected government in several recent high-profile cases, and dozens of judges who were fired in 2007 by Pakistan's former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, were reinstated after street protests in March.

"This will slow down any deportation. It will complicate it," said Tayyab Mahmud, an expert on Pakistani and international law at Seattle University's law school. Because Pakistani law requires officials to present cases to a court within 24 hours of an arrest, he said, "very strictly speaking, the court is within its right."

The men, ages 18 to 24, traveled overseas just after Thanksgiving without telling their families, triggering an international missing-persons case. The five -- Ramy Zamzam, 22; Ahmad A. Minni, 20; Umar Chaudhry, 24; Waqar Khan, 22; and Aman Hassan Yemer, 18 -- were transferred Saturday from Sargodha to Lahore, where they were being questioned by the FBI. Pakistani officials have said they also want more time to interrogate the men about their possible radical ties in Pakistan.

Pakistani police and intelligence officials have said the men were in contact for months with a Taliban recruiter and were trying to join up with al-Qaeda. They were hoping to work with jihadist groups and battle U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the Pakistani officials said. U.S. law enforcement officials are considering criminal charges against the men but have said nothing is imminent. The men's friends and spiritual advisers in Northern Virginia have said they never saw a sign of radical activities or beliefs.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the Pakistani court ruling "sounds to me to be a reasonable judicial procedure," but he declined to comment on how it might affect the transfer of the men to U.S. authorities.

He indicated that Pakistani officials are declining to follow a key part of Monday's court order: that the investigation be carried out by Pakistani authorities and not any foreign agency. "We've had excellent cooperation with the Pakistani authorities both on the diplomatic side and on the law enforcement side," Kelly said.

The petition before the Pakistani court, filed by human rights activist Khalid Khwaja, said the men's arrest violated Pakistani law and demanded their release "from their illegal confinement in the interest of justice, equity and conscience."

Tariq Asad, an attorney for Khwaja, said in an interview that since the men were arrested on Pakistani soil, "we pray before the court that if they are already being questioned by the FBI then that should be stopped and any probe ought to be carried out by the Pakistani investigators."

The FBI, which has been questioning the men for at least several days, declined to comment on the court's action.

Hussain reported from Pakistan. Witte reported from Kabul. Staff writer Mary Beth Sheridan and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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