The federal government has barred two relatives of a Lodi man convicted of supporting terrorists from returning to the country after a lengthy stay in Pakistan, placing the U.S. citizens in an extraordinary legal limbo.
Muhammad Ismail, a 45-year-old naturalized citizen born in Pakistan, and his 18-year-old son, Jaber Ismail, who was born in the United States, have not been charged with a crime. However, they are the uncle and cousin of Hamid Hayat, a 23-year-old Lodi cherry packer who was convicted in April of supporting terrorists by attending a Pakistani training camp.
Federal authorities said Friday that the men, both Lodi residents, would not be allowed back into the country unless they agreed to FBI interrogations in Pakistan. An attorney representing the family said agents have asked whether the younger Ismail trained in terrorist camps in Pakistan.
The men and three relatives had been in Pakistan for more than four years and tried to return to the United States on April 21 as a federal jury in Sacramento deliberated Hayat’s fate. But they were pulled aside during a layover in Hong Kong and told there was a problem with their passports, said Julia Harumi Mass, their attorney.
The father and son were forced to pay for a flight back to Islamabad because they were on the government’s “no-fly” list, Mass said. Muhammad Ismail’s wife, teenage daughter and younger son, who were not on the list, continued on to the United States.
Neither Muhammad nor Jaber Ismail holds dual Pakistani citizenship, Mass said.
“We haven’t heard about this happening — U.S. citizens being refused the right to return from abroad without any charges or any basis,” said Mass, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.
McGregor Scott, the U.S. attorney for California’s eastern district, confirmed Friday that the men were on the no-fly list and were being kept out of the country until they agreed to talk to federal authorities.
“They’ve been given the opportunity to meet with the FBI over there and answer a few questions, and they’ve declined to do that,” Scott said.
Mass said Jaber Ismail had answered questions during an FBI interrogation at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad soon after he was forced back to Pakistan. She said the teenager had run afoul of the FBI when he declined to be interviewed again without a lawyer and refused to take a lie-detector test.
The Ismails had been in Pakistan partly so Jaber could study the Quran, Mass said. She said that neither he nor his father had anything to do with terrorism.
“They want to come home and have an absolute right to come home,” said Mass, who has filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security and a petition with the Transportation Security Administration.
“They can’t be compelled to waive their constitutional rights under threat of banishment,” Mass said. “The government is conditioning the return to their home on cooperation with law enforcement.”
Aviation watch lists were created in 1990 to keep terrorists off planes and track drug smugglers and other fugitives. But since al Qaeda’s attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the government has expanded the lists significantly. Members of the public cannot find out if, or why, they are on a no-fly list.
Michael Barr, director of the aviation safety and security program at USC, said the Ismail case appears to be unusual in the realm of federal terrorism investigations.
“You become what is called a stateless person, and that would be very unprecedented,” Barr said.
He said U.S. law enforcement agents have understandably been “overly cautious” in recent years. “If they’re going to err, they’re going to err on the side of caution,” Barr said. “What’s happened in a lot of these things is that you’re guilty until proven innocent.”
Jaber Ismail was one of several people mentioned by his cousin, Hayat, during a videotaped interview with the FBI in Sacramento in June 2005 that prompted Hayat’s arrest.
Hayat himself had just returned from a two-year trip to Pakistan. His flight, too, had been diverted because Hayat was on the no-fly list as a result of conversations he had with an informant who had infiltrated the mosque in Lodi that Hayat attended.
Prosecutors said Hayat told FBI interrogators that he had trained at a terrorist camp in Pakistan, although defense attorneys argued that the videotaped confession was contradictory and suggested that agents had manipulated the interview.
When agents asked him who else had gone to training camps, Hayat said, “I can’t say 100 percent, but I have a lot of, you know, names in my head,” according to a transcript of the interview.
Hayat said Jaber Ismail “went, like, two years ago.” Asked if his cousin had gone to the same camp he had attended, Hayat said, “I’m not sure, but I’ll say he went to a camp.”
Hayat later said that Ismail and another relative “didn’t talk to me about going to camps or anything. But you know I’m sure they went to the camp ... ‘cause they memorize the Holy Quran.”
Hayat faces up to 39 years in prison when he is sentenced. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 17 to discuss his lawyers’ motion for a new trial on a number of grounds, including juror misconduct.
On Friday, Hayat’s father, ice cream truck driver Umer Hayat, 48, was formally sentenced at U.S. District Court in Sacramento.
In a deal with prosecutors, the elder Hayat pleaded guilty in June to charges of lying to customs agents about $28,000 he was carrying during a trip to his native Pakistan. He avoided a retrial on more serious charges of lying to the FBI about his son’s training in Pakistan. He was sentenced to the 330 days in jail that he already served.
Speaking publicly for the first time, Umer Hayat said outside the courthouse that he “got screwed” and “hates terrorists.” He said he had fabricated his own videotaped FBI confession — in which he described visiting a militant camp in Pakistan where his son had allegedly trained — because agents refused to believe the truth and because he was tired.
He said he had borrowed his description of masked terrorists firing guns, swinging swords and pole vaulting in a basement from “the newspaper and the TV,” as well as from a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game belonging to his children. He said his ice cream truck bears a photo of one of the turtles, advertising a $1.25 ice cream bar.
“I make a story, that’s all,” Hayat said.
Scott, the U.S. attorney, said he would “take anything Umer Hayat says with a grain of salt. He seems capable of saying whatever needs to be said at any particular time, whether it’s the truth or not.”