Deportation hearing for N.J. muslim cleric

NEWARK, N.J. - May 12, 2008 Mohammad Qatanani, 44, is being denied U.S. residency based on allegations that he failed to disclose a 1993 arrest and conviction in Israel on his green card application.

Qatanani has been the Imam - or religious leader - of a mosque in Paterson called the Islamic Center of Passaic County since 1996, the year he came to the U.S. on a work visa to lead the mosque. He applied for permanent residency in 1999.

The U.S. government is now seeking to deport him, arguing that he never disclosed a prior arrest in Israel on his application - a disclosure that could disqualify him from getting a green card.

Israeli military authorities say Qatanani admitted to being a member of Hamas during interrogation in 1993 in Israel. Both the United States and Israel consider Hamas to be a terror group.

An Israeli army statement says an Israeli military court sentenced Qatanani to three months in prison and a 12-month suspended sentence, and also fined him.

During the third day of testimony Monday, defense witnesses and lawyers for Qatanani continued to dispute he was ever arrested and countered claims he was associated with Hamas.

They said Qatanani, a Palestinian with Jordanian citizenship, had been detained - not arrested - while traveling to his native West Bank in 1993. They said he was unaware of any conviction.

They continued to challenge the authenticity of documents that immigration authorities say came from Israel.

Witnesses for Qatanani also testified Monday that detention of Palestinians traveling through Israel in the early 1990's were routine.

On Monday, Lisa Hajjar, a professor at the University of California was called by the defense as an expert witness on Israeli military courts.

Hajjar testified that the detention and interrogation of Palestinians - including the use of techniques later outlawed as torture - was routinely done by Israeli authorities in the early 1990s.

When asked by a U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement lawyer to look at documents provided by Israel in Qatanani's case, Hajjar said they did not appear to her to indicate he had been convicted.

"There is no document that actually names him," she said. "There's an indictment, but an indictment is not a conviction."

Although the details of the Israeli incident are disputed, both sides have testified that U.S. immigration officials were unaware of them until Qatanani brought them to their attention in 2005.

That's the year he asked for a special meeting with immigration to find out why there was a six year delay in his green card application.

When the judge called for a lunch break, Qatanani - surrounded by at least 40 supporters - lead daily prayers in the middle of the courthouse cafeteria.

Despite high winds and rain, Qatanani supporters outside the courthouse waved American flags at passers-by and shouted through megaphones that Qatanani is a man of peace.

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