ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A northern Virginia man who says he fears torture at the hands of Israeli authorities is back in the U.S. after a judge's order forced immigration authorities to reverse his deportation and bring him back from Israel before he ever got off the plane.
Abdelhaleem Ashqar recently served 11 years in prison for refusing to testify to a grand jury investigating the Palestinian militant group Hamas. In 2005, he ran to succeed Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian National Authority, all while confined to his Alexandria home on house arrest as he awaited trial. He finished fourth in a field of seven.
According to court papers and interviews, U.S. authorities arrested Ashqar on Tuesday and quickly deported him on a chartered flight after misleading him about his need to report to an immigration office to process paperwork.
By Thursday, though, Ashqar, 60, was back in the U.S. He's now at a detention facility in Bowling Green, Virginia, as his case awaits an expedited ruling from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.
The turnaround followed a late-night emergency hearing Tuesday in federal court in which the judge inquired about turning around the plane carrying Ashqar mid-flight.
Ultimately, though, the plane landed in Israel, where U.S. officials say they planned to make arrangements to turn him over to Palestinian authorities.
But deportations to Palestinian territory must be conducted through Israel, said Ashqar's immigration lawyer, Patrick Taurel. So Israel could either intercept and interrogate Ashqar before handing him over to the Palestinians, or the Palestinians might simply hand Ashqar over to the Israelis, Taurel said.
Ashqar, who was born in the Palestinian West Bank and came to the U.S. in 1989 on a temporary visa to study at the University of Mississippi, has a credible fear of torture at the hands of Israel, Taurel said; Ashqar says he was imprisoned and beaten by Israeli interrogators in the 1980s after protesting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
After the hearing, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III issued a ruling in which he largely said he said he had no authority to intervene in the deportation. He did say, though, he was concerned that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was not carrying out the deportation properly. Ashqar's removal order specifies he be deported to Jordan, so Ellis barred immigration officials from turning Ashqar over to Israeli authorities in any way.
In doing so, he stated in a footnote that his ruling "must not be construed in any way as accepting as true petitioner's (Ashqar's) claim that he was tortured by Israeli officials in the past and that he has a bona fide fear that he will be tortured."
ICE officials issued a statement Saturday saying the bureau fully complied with Ellis' order. The statement said officers returned Ashqar to the U.S. Thursday because they were "prohibited from executing the removal if Ashqar was delivered to Israeli authorities."
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, which is defending the government's actions in court, declined comment Saturday.
Taurel said authorities can't deport Ashqar to Jordan because the Jordanians won't accept him. Indeed, Taurel said records in one of Ashqar's court proceedings show that then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen raised the issue directly to her Jordanian counterparts to no avail.
Taurel expressed frustration about the way in which the deportation was conducted. He said ICE agents will often conduct deportations unannounced when people make regular check-ins at immigration offices. But he said this is the first time that a client was deported after he had received explicit assurances that would not occur.
Ashqar's family said they accompanied him to the immigration office in Fairfax on Tuesday when he was deported. His wife, Asmaa, said agents assured her everything was fine even as they took him away in handcuffs. She said she waited four hours before an agent came out and told her her husband had been deported and was going to Israel.
"It's like a movie. It's unbelievable," she said.
After he finished serving his prison sentence, Ashqar spent another 18 months in immigration custody as officials looked for a way to deport him. He was finally released in December after his lawyers successfully petitioned to get him out. During the five months he was free, Asmaa said, "he didn't like to leave the house. He wanted to just stay home with us."
Ashqar's son, Ahmad Mohammed, likened his father's deportation to a kidnapping. He said the family was able to speak to him by phone after he was brought back to the U.S.
"He's hanging in there," he said. "He's thinking about us more than he's thinking about himself."
Hamas issued a statement Thursday condemning the deportation and holding the U.S. accountable for his treatment.
The statement said Ashqar "is a national icon who is known for his sense of nationalism and loyalty for his people. ... Indeed, all the Palestinian people are proud of him."
An email seeking comment from the Israeli Embassy in Washington was not immediately returned Saturday.