A former member of an elite Iraqi military force who came to Minnesota as a refugee is trying to win release 16 months after being detained by federal immigration authorities who say he concealed his past as he sought protection in the U.S.
Farass Adnan Ali, 34, of Rochester, has been held in Sherburne County jail since a May 2017 arrest that has touched off deportation proceedings that have intersected with an FBI counterterrorism probe. According to court papers, Ali’s arrest also came one day after he allegedly lied to two FBI agents about his social media activity.
According to a federal search warrant application filed by an FBI agent last year, that activity included posting images of a caravan of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants entering a Libyan city in 2015 and a photo of Ali posing in a sporting goods store alongside firearms for sale.
“Finally I found where they sell weapons and they are cheap! I swear to Allah!” the Fallujah, Iraq, native wrote in a caption in Arabic under the post, which is still public on Facebook.
Yet it is unclear what first put Ali on the FBI’s radar, and no criminal charges have been made public since his arrest. Ali has lived in Rochester since traveling from Turkey as a refugee in 2014 and he was granted lawful permanent residence status in July 2015.
Local officials representing the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. attorney’s office each declined to comment on Ali’s case. On Friday, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union in Minnesota filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus challenging Ali’s “unreasonable, prolonged” pre-deportation detention. They argued that Minnesota’s federal judges have ordered the release of at least four other immigrants this year who were “subject to mandatory detention when their pre-removal detention period has gone beyond any legitimate government reason to detain.”
“This is somebody who’s never committed a crime in America, he entered as a refugee, he’s got a green card and the United States is holding him for no really good reason,” Ian Bratlie, an attorney for the ACLU in Minnesota who is representing Ali, said in an interview Monday. “It’s kind of absurd and it’s harmful to people’s rights.”
According to court records, ICE officials alleged that on immigration forms Ali hid his service in the Saddam Hussein regime’s elite Republican Guard and said that he had never been arrested in Iraq. But while later seeking refugee status, Ali claimed that he had once been arrested and interrogated by Iraqi authorities who suspected his involvement in an explosion targeting police.
An FBI agent who interviewed Ali before his arrest wrote in his application to search Ali’s phone that Ali told agents he did not use Facebook or an application called Viber to communicate. But an FBI interview with a friend who sponsored Ali’s immigration bid and cellphone, Facebook and Viber records refuted Ali, the agent said. The agent said Ali’s contacts on Viber included a fellow Fallujah native also seeking refugee status and who is allegedly linked to an insurgent cell behind attacks on Iraqi and coalition forces.
Ali’s lawyers point out that the government has not publicly invoked any requisite national security statutes to justify such a prolonged detention, which they say also included seven months of solitary confinement.
Federal Immigration Judge Ryan Wood has refused to release Ali on bond, finding that he failed to meet his burden of showing that he didn’t pose a danger to the community. But Bratlie said the judge did not explain why he found Ali to be such a danger and said records of what was said or presented during Ali’s immigration proceedings are not public.
Bratlie said Ali also does not have a criminal history: He was charged in Olmsted County with fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct and disorderly conduct in November 2016, but prosecutors dropped the charges two months after his federal arrest.
This is the second federal habeas corpus petition filed by Ali while he has been held in Sherburne County. Another judge threw out his first complaint in March after Ali failed to respond to an order to amend the filing. The attorney representing Ali in that case also died soon after its dismissal.
Bratlie said that unless Senior U.S. District Judge David Doty — who has been assigned the latest habeas case — intervenes, Ali could be held at least another year. Even if he is ordered deported, Bratlie said in court filings, it is unlikely that Iraq will take him back because of the “high number of Iraqi deportees, the low number of individuals Iraq actually takes back and the limited ability of Iraq to take back more people.”
The government will next likely be given 30 days to answer the petition, which may shed light on its reasoning for seeking to keep Ali in custody before Doty rules on this latest petition. Last month, Wood meanwhile invited both parties to file briefings on their arguments in the removal case, Bratlie said, but a judicial opinion in that case may still be months away.
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755 Twitter: @smontemayor