PHILADELPHIA - An Egyptian who fears he will be tortured for his Christian beliefs cannot be deported without full court review just to further U.S. diplomatic goals, a federal judge has determined.
Sameh Khouzam, 38, credibly argued that he had been tortured previously, and the U.S. government should not deport him based on a diplomatic pledge from Egypt that he will not be mistreated again, the judge ruled Thursday.
He ordered Khouzam released from U.S. prisons, where he had been held more than eight years, but stayed his order five days pending further court action. The Justice Department appealed the ruling to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court.
"The fact that this matter implicates the foreign affairs of the United States does not insulate the executive branch action from judicial review," U.S. District Judge Thomas I. Vanaskie wrote.
"Not even the president of the United States has the authority to sacrifice ... the right to be free from torture" on the altar of foreign relations, he wrote.
Khouzam also fears he will face what he calls a trumped-up murder conviction if deported. Vanaskie found little evidence to support the in-absentia conviction.
The judge said courts must ensure that the Egyptian pledge to treat Khouzam humanely is the result of high-level discussions with State Department and Homeland Security officials.
The American Civil Liberties Union represents Khouzam, who came to the country in 1998 but was immediately detained based on the criminal allegations forwarded from Egypt.
"The government argued in this case that the court had no role to play in reviewing the adequacy of the (diplomatic) assurances. The court soundly rejected that argument," ACLU attorney Amrit Singh said Friday.
Justice Department officials had no comment, spokesman Charles Miller said Friday.
According to Vanaskie, the only evidence filed to support the murder conviction was a news release, not any formal court documents.
Khouzam's lawyers deny he killed anyone and say the news release lists a conviction date of Feb. 22, 1998, which is eleven days after the alleged crime. They say no body or autopsy has ever been produced.
The media office of the Egyptian Embassy in Washington did not return a message seeking comment Friday.
The Justice Department argued last year that Khouzam's case must be placed in the broader context of U.S.-Egyptian relations.
"Why in the world would they deal with us again if all of the course of their dealings with us are going to be opened up to scrutiny?" lawyer Douglas Ginsburg argued in court. "That's exactly what's at stake here. There is a full panoply of interests and diplomatic interactions between the United States and Egypt."
Khouzam claims that he and his family were frequently detained in Egypt by authorities who demanded that they abandon their Coptic Christian beliefs and convert to Islam. Only about 10 per cent of the mostly Muslim country is Christian.
Khouzam says he endured various forms of torture which sometimes required medical treatment. He says he escaped from a hospital after one such episode in February 1998 and hopped a flight to the United States.
His mother, Georgette Shehata, came a year later and has since been granted asylum. She lives in York, near the prison where Khouzam is currently held.
"The lawyers say the decision is very strong," Shehata said Friday. She is eager for her son to experience the freedom she has known in America, rather than prison.
"It is a very bad experience (for him)," Shehata said, noting her son has lost 40 pounds in the past seven months.