Muslim leader kept from return to U.S.

Orland Park man was visiting Jordan

By Laurie Cohen, Steve Franklin and Deborah Horan, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporters Oscar Avila and Robert Manor contributed to this report

January 25, 2003

An outspoken leader of Chicago's Muslim community who has helped run a group allegedly connected to Palestinian militants has been barred from returning to the United States after visiting relatives in his native Jordan.

Sabri Samirah, who has lived in the U.S. since 1987 but is not a naturalized citizen, was stopped by immigration officials at Shannon Airport in Ireland and told he could not return to America because of national security concerns. He then flew back to Jordan, he said in a phone interview from his parents' house in Amman.

Samirah was formerly chairman and has long been a board member of the Islamic Association for Palestine, an organization that government officials have described as the U.S. propaganda arm of the Islamic militant group Hamas. He also leads the United Muslim Americans Association, a political advocacy group that shares office space in southwest suburban Palos Hills with the Islamic Association for Palestine.

Samirah has been a high-profile spokesman for Islamic causes, lambasting the government for alleged discrimination against Muslims, challenging American policy in the Middle East and rallying fellow Muslims to vote. When First Lady Laura Bush came to town in May 2001, he was selected as the Muslim community's representative to greet her at the airport.

Samirah said the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had approved his plans to travel to Jordan, the first time he has been back since 1990. He left on Dec. 28 and was on his way home Saturday when immigration officials detained him in Ireland.

"They fingerprinted me, took my picture and in 10 minutes they said, `We are sorry. This is nothing personal. We received a fax yesterday from Brian Perryman,'" director of the INS in Chicago, revoking his permission to leave the country.

Samirah, 36, of Orland Park, said immigration officials have been trying to get him out of the country since 1997 by revoking his work visa, an action he has been challenging in immigration court. Samirah and his wife have applied for permanent residency in the U.S.

Samirah blamed his problems on pro-Israeli and right-wing Christian groups, which he said want to prevent Muslims in America from being politically active.

"They do not like to see Muslim groups growing and flourishing in the U.S.," he said. "They believe that if down the road Muslims are politically powerful they will neutralize the American policy toward the Middle East."

Samirah acknowledged he might have been targeted because of his connection to the Islamic Association for Palestine, which he described as a "civil rights group." After the Sept. 11 attacks, two of the group's officials in Texas were deported on immigration-fraud charges.

"If they are punishing me, if they want to accuse me of something wrong, take me back to the U.S. and try me," Samirah said.

At a news conference Friday at the United Muslim Americans Association's office, Samirah's wife, Sima Srouri, said her husband has no connections to Hamas, which is opposed to the existence of Israel and has claimed responsibility for killing scores of Israelis. She said the government action against Samirah was a "big disaster" for her family, which includes three American-born sons.

"I don't know why this is happening," said Srouri, who teaches at a school associated with the Mosque Foundation of Bridgeview, where Samirah has been a leader. "He's a public figure. He registers people to vote, organizes people. I have no answer why they did this."

Marilu Cabrera, a spokeswoman for the INS in Chicago, said she could not comment specifically on Samirah's case. But she said that, in general, the type of permission received by Samirah doesn't guarantee that immigrants who do not have permanent residency will be readmitted to the U.S.

"An individual is running a certain amount of risk by leaving the country," Cabrera said.

Manal el-Hrisse, executive director of the United Muslim Americans Association, accused the INS of deceiving Samirah into leaving the country. "We will go after the INS," she said at the news conference. "We believe they tricked him."

The Islamic Association for Palestine has been under government scrutiny for years but has never been charged with wrongdoing. The group, founded in Illinois in 1981, promotes the Palestinian cause by holding conferences and publishing an Arabic-language newspaper.

The INS, in a report in a 2001 deportation case, said top Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzouk was once an official of the Islamic Association for Palestine and helped to bankroll the group. The group has also produced training and recruitment videos for Hamas and has distributed Hamas communiques and its charter, the INS said.

Shortly after Sept. 11, the INS deported Ghassan Dahduli and Hasan Sabri, both former officials of the Islamic Association for Palestine in Texas, accusing them of improperly obtaining visas as religious workers. Dahduli also worked at one time for Infocom Corp., a Texas Internet provider whose top executives were indicted in December along with Marzouk on charges of money laundering, export violations and circumventing a presidential order.

One of the indicted Infocom executives has been president of the Texas office of the Islamic Association of Palestine. When Infocom was raided by FBI agents just before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Islamic Association for Palestine, one of its clients, received a subpoena for records.

Srouri said her husband has been questioned by the FBI and apparently was cleared.

"The FBI checked his records hundreds of times," she said. "If there were any problems, they should have said."

Samirah, who said he has a doctorate in public policy from the University of Illinois-Chicago, said the INS revoked his work visa in 1997 because his technical qualifications didn't match his job description.

In 1998, after followers of Osama bin Laden bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa, Samirah said he was not convinced the Al Qaeda leader was to blame. "You have to have evidence, and then go after them," he said.

Last year he served as family spokesmen for three Muslim medical students who were detained in Florida after a waitress thought she overheard them talking about terrorism attacks.

"I believe in peace and justice," he said Friday. "I believe in solving struggles peacefully."
Copyright C 2003, Chicago Tribune