Ziad Abu Eain is about to complete his second year in a Chicago jail, and he will spend the day as he has spent most of the others -- fighting extradition to Israel in the latest round of a legal battle that has become a rallying point for the American Arab community.
Abu Eain, a 21-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank, claims he is the victim of a political prosecution and has been denied the right to present evidence to a U.S. court that could clear him of charges of participating in a May 1979 bombing in Israel. He was arrested by the FBI at the request of the Israelis, who claim he carried out the bombing for the Palestine Liberation Organization.
After 23 months of wrangling, his lawyers have petitioned the Supreme Court, arguing that he has not had a fair hearing in the United States.
The case has some extraordinary features: the Israelis' request for extradition is based solely on the "confession" -- now twice recanted -- of an alleged accomplice that was obtained after he spent weeks in custody without seeing an attorney. The confession is in Hebrew, a language the alleged accomplice does not speak, read nor understand.
Abu Eain has produced 11 affidavits saying at the time of the bombing he was in his home town of Ramallah, a four-hour drive from Tiberias, where the bombing occurred, but a U.S. District Court in Illinois refused to allow these to be admitted as evidence in deciding that there was "probable cause" to believe he was guilty. Nor did the court allow recantations of the confession to be admitted.
Bail has been refused, although 10 families offered homes worth a total of about $1 million as surety.
So Abu Eain has stayed in jail in downtown Chicago, in a room about 11 feet by 8, mixing with convicted drug pushers and violent criminals and spending about three hours a day working on his case. He is remarkably composed, even cheerful, considering he faces a life in jail. He shows no sign of bitterness toward the United States, though he believes he has suffered unfairly in his dealings with U.S. courts.
"I hope. I believe in American justice," he says. "I believe there should be justice in this country, and the government cannot push anything on the Supreme Court. I hope I will have my fair trial with the Supreme Court. I just have hope. I do not know what will happen."
About his innocence, he is unequivocal. He says he rejects violence and his only political activity has been peaceful. In 1977 he was convicted in Israel of writing slogans on walls and being a member of an undesirable political organization -- a group affiliated with the PLO. He received a seven-month suspended sentence.
He recalls May 14, 1979, well. His sister gave birth early that afternoon and he says he minded the family store until about 3, when celebrations began. Friends and acquaintances stopped by to offer congratulations. He remembers turning on the television at 7:30 and hearing of the explosion in Tiberias.
The confession later obtained by Israeli interrogators from Jamal Yasin, a friend of Abu Eain, tells a different tale. Yasin said the two drove to Tiberias, set a time bomb and drove home. Yasin later signed two statements recanting this confession, and Abu Eain obtained affidavits from 11 people accounting for his whereabouts at the time. This is the evidence he has not been allowed to introduce in court here.
In early June 1979 Abu Eain's family received a telegram from his sister in Chicago that mentioned illness and urged that a member of the family come to the United States. Abu Eain stayed in Amman, Jordan, where his fiance lives, for six days before flying to Chicago on June 14. His sister met him with the news that their father had been arrested while he was in Jordan.
He telephoned home but the reason for the arrest was a mystery. The father told Abu Eain after his release on July 3 that the Israelis had asked about him, and the two men decided that Israeli authorities were trying to discourage Abu Eain from returning to the West Bank.
Then early one morning there was a knock on his door in Chicago. "When I opened it, there were four people there with guns in their hands," he said. "They came right in." When they identified themselves as FBI agents, he said, he was terrified and did not know whether to believe them, so he gave a false name. His cousin called an attorney; Abu Eain was taken to the FBI building, questioned and released.
Four days later, as he was preparing to leave for Jordan, the FBI summoned him again. He appeared in court and was taken to jail to await the start of extradition proceedings.
The extradition treaty between the United States and Israel was signed in December, 1963; this is the first request under it for removal of a suspect.
The Israeli Embassy has declined to discuss the case while it is before the courts.
Abu Eain's lawyers contended that the confession that formed the basis of the Israeli case was not sufficient justification for extradition. The treaty says in part: "Extradition shall be granted only if the evidence be found sufficient -- according to the laws of the place where the person sought shall be found -- either to justify his committal for trial if the offense of which he is accused had been committed in that place or to prove that he is the identical person convicted by the courts of the requesting party."
The lawyers' claim that the evidence was not sufficient failed to impress the court. A magistrate found "probable cause" that Abu Eain had committed the crime, and a subsequent plea for a writ of habeas corpus was turned down. He was not allowed to introduce evidence contradicting Yasin's confession -- the recantations and Abu Eain's affidavits -- and appeals of the court's decision have failed.
Having been unable to convince the court that the evidence was not sufficient to show probable cause, the defense then argued that the charge fell within the "political offense" exception in the treaty, which says extradition can be refused if the offense is regarded as being of a political character. This is a customary extradition clause designed to allow governments to keep out of other nations' internal political troubles.
The courts found that the Tiberias bombing -- allegedly carried out by the PLO during Israel's four-month bombing campaign in southern Lebanon -- was not a political act, but a common crime.
Supporters of Abu Eain claim that this is the key to the case. They argue that the State Department suffered a major defeat in May, 1979, in failing to extradite John Peter McMullen, who admitted responsibility for a fatal bombing by the Irish Republican Army but was allowed to remain in the United States because of the "political offense" exception. Abu Eain's supporters claim that the State Department wants to use his case to avoid repetition of such an "embarrassment."
A State Department spokesman says the department simply passed the request for extradition on to the Justice Department, and now awaits the outcome. But supporters of Abu Eain point to the testimony of Louis Fields, assistant legal adviser for functional problems in the department, who gave the government view that the Tiberias bombing should not fall under the "political offense" exception.
So, after failing to have the case thrown out in the lower courts, Abu Eain's attorneys have filed a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court, asking it to accept the case. If the justices do, a hearing probably would take place next spring. Meanwhile, Abu Eain remains in jail.
His case has aroused anger in the Arab community, which is convinced that he is the victim of discrimination. Dr. James Zogby, an organizer of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said: "It's our opinion that the only way to account for the State Department's and the U.S. attorney's behavior in this case is the fact that Ziad Abu Eain is an Arab."
If the Supreme Court turns down Abu Eain's plea, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. will have to decide whether to grant extradition. Already, 17 Arab ambassadors have written him, warning that a decision to extradite Abu Eain on such evidence would add to the "profound sense of injustice" at the heart of the Mideast problem.
Ziad Abu Eain is depressed but hopeful as he waits in jail for the high court's decision, trying to keep his mind off the future should the justices refuse his appeal.