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U.S. Deporting Religious Refugees Back To Iran

by Sandip Roy

From Jail, Dialing Strangers For Help
(PNS) -- When copies of his magazine Pezhvak of Persia bounced back several weeks ago marked "RETURN TO SENDER, SUBJECT NOT IN CUSTODY," Shahbaz Taheri grew anxious. Since 9/11 Taheri had been sending his San Jose, Ca.-based bilingual monthly to Iranians detained on immigration charges in various jails. Now he fears that the immigration crackdown has entered a new phase and that some of these detainees might be on the fast track for deportation.

It's a prospect that terrifies many of the detainees who believe they'll be imprisoned, tortured or even executed for their political or religious beliefs back in Iran.

After making inquiries, Taheri learned that early in March the U.S. government had rounded up Iranians from detention centers around the country and flown them to Florence, Arizona and Oakdale, Louisiana where they met with Iranian government officials brought in from Washington D.C.

Kourosh Gholamshahi, 35, was one of Taheri's subscribers who had disappeared. Now he's back in the Yuba County Jail. "I was scared to meet the Iranians but the INS officials said things would be worse for me if I didn't," Gholamshahi recalls. He was asked about his family in Iran, and how long he had been in the United States. His lawyers fear that U.S. authorities are working with Iranian officials to secure the documentation needed to ship him back to Iran.

Gholamshahi, a member of Iran's persecuted Baha'i religious minority, was denied asylum in 1989. His lawyer has documented how members of the Baha'i faith have been executed and had their property seized in Iran. Afraid to return to his home country, he went underground until he was picked up by the INS in Sacramento in June 2002 and has been in custody ever since.

Iran has no official diplomatic relations with the United States and operates out of the Pakistani Embassy. "When we don't even allow them to have a real consulate, the fact that we can have them walking around in Arizona in close cooperation with the U.S. government is very troubling," says Banafsheh Akhlaghi, an attorney who represents Iranians detained during the special registration process last December.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security would neither confirm nor deny the reports and says it cannot comment on movements of detainees. But spokeswoman Karen Kraushaar of the Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement says if it happened, it was not out of the ordinary. "We will periodically allow detainees to speak to government officials from their country," says Gholamshahi. He says that he saw at least 40 to 50 other Iranians when he was in Florence.

Typically when the government wants to deport someone they need to get travel documents from the destination country. But many of the Iranians fled persecution back in Iran. "How can you deport someone to a country which President Bush himself has said represses and tortures its citizens?" wonders Taheri of Prezhvak.

Kraushaar says the government is very sensitive to any threat to the safety of the deportees. "If they have a good reason not to speak to their officials, we take it seriously. But if the only reason is that they don't want to go back to their home country, that's another matter. We have a job to do like verifying their nationality."

"I can't say they have been put on a fast track for removal but the very fact that there is a perception of this is very unsettling," says Robin Goldfarb, staff counsel for the ACLU's Immigration Rights Project. "When viewed in the larger context of special registrations, post 9/11 round-ups, the absconder initiative, it is part of a troubling pattern," she says.

Lack of information makes the picture murkier. To date the government has said there have been 478 deportations linked to 9/11 investigations but it probably doesn't include run-of-the-mill visa overstayers in that figure. As of Mar. 18, 54,484 men had registered in the "25 country special registration program," according to Goldfarb; and 5,636 had received notices to appear, which could commence removal proceedings.

Though Gholamshahi managed to contact Taheri after he was brought back to Yuba County Jail, Taheri wonders what happened to the other people in jails in Sacramento and Bakersfield who called him collect. "First there was Hashem. Then Kouroush. Then Farhad and Hossein," recalls Taheri. Their message was the same -- call their public defenders and tell them not to forget about them. Taheri wonders if some of them might already have been sent back to Iran.

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Albion Monitor May 14, 2003 (

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