U.S. Government Doesn't Want to Talk About Detaining Plano Imam

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Imam Safdar Razi Ali

Carl Rusnock, the local spokesman for U.S immigration and Customs Enforcement, just sent Unfair Park a brief statement concerning the arrest and detention of Safdar Razi Ali, which says, in its entirety, that he "was arrested April 2 at his residence on immigration charges by agents from U.S immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and is currently in ICE custody. No further information is releasable to the public at this time."

This, incidentally, is more information than Ali's Dallas attorney says she has received from the U.S. government. Karen Pennington tells Unfair Park she hopes to learn more tomorrow, when Ali is scheduled to appear in a Dallas federal courtroom -- first at 8:30 a.m. for a master docket hearing, then again an hour later for a bond hearing. But Pennington, who handles immigration cases, says she doesn't expect to learn much more: "I have to assume it's due to some kind of a security issue, which is just unfathomable to me."

The U.S. government wants to deport Ali to Pakistan, where he hasn't lived since he was 7 years old and where, Pennington says, he faces "certain death" as a Shiite leader who's spoken out against Sunni-spread violence in the region. (Here's but one example of Ali speaking about understanding Islam.)

According to this Austin American-Statesman story from June 2006, Ali -- better known in Austn as Safdar Razi -- was a well-regarded figure who served "as an ambassador for all Muslims in Central Texas." Indeed, says the story, he "visited more than 200 churches, including the Catholic St. Mary's Cathedral and the megachurch Riverbend, as well as synagogues and other organizations, to explain the peaceful principles of Islam."

But two years ago, he left Austin for Dearborn, Michigan, where he went to work for the Islamic Center of America, the largest mosque in North America, established in 1963. Ali also went to work for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, often referred to as "the most influential moderate Shia leader in Iraq."

According to Pennington, Ali was taken from his Plano home -- he's also got a wife and three kids -- last Wednesday, and he has "only been allowed to talk to me when they patch him through" from the Dallas ICE detention center. "He's also been questioned by the FBI repeatedly without me present. I am so offended I can't even tell you. It's the worst days of September 11 and beyond all over again."

Ali entered the U.S. from Qatar in 2000 on a religious worker visa, which expired in 2005. He applied for an extension, Pennington says, but it wasn't granted because the government ruled that he wasn't an imam -- despite his well-documented work in Austin at the Islamic Ahlul Bayt Association. He then filed for political asylum, and Pennington began representing Ali in December 2007, after he moved to Plano from Michigan to work with the Institute of Islamic Learning in Metroplex.

Pennington does have one theory why ICE is detaining Ali: She says received a call from someone at Ali's former North Austin mosque who says "an extremist group" might have made a donation to the Islamic Ahlul Bayt Association during his tenure there. Even if that's the case, though, the donation "was not known to him," Pennington says. And, again, that's only a guess as to why he's being detained. Tomorrow, she might have more answers -- through she isn't counting on it.

"This just seems so counterproductive," she says. "How can this benefit the U.S.? I can't see it. I view it as potentially devastating toward our foreign policy interests." Not to mention Safdar Razi Ali. --Robert Wilonsky

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