Cleveland Muslim Cleric Hate


Process to deport Damra drags on

Immigration law presents hurdles

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Mike Tobin and Robert L. Smith

Plain Dealer Reporters

The deportation of Muslim cleric Fawaz Damra, who went to prison for lying about his ties to terrorist groups, is taking longer than expected and may not happen at all.

While federal authorities insist they still want Damra out of the country, they no longer talk confidently of forcing him to leave.

"Unfortunately, immigration law is extremely complicated," said Brian Moskowitz, special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Detroit, which is handling the deportation case. "Things are not always as simple as they appear."

The news has solidified Damra's standing within the Islamic Center of Cleveland, a mosque polarized by the terrorism accusations and the exposure of videotaped, hate-filled speeches. But Damra remains a controversial figure both inside and outside the Muslim community.

Moskowitz and U.S. Attorney Greg White declined to talk in specifics about the case.

But several attorneys familiar with the case said there are two serious hurdles to deporting Damra:

Palestinian-born Damra, of Strongsville, claims he will be tortured if sent to the West Bank, Gaza or Jordan, and international law prohibits deporting someone to a place if there is a likelihood he will be tortured. Damra claims the Jordanian and Palestinian leaders are afraid of being toppled by radicals and would not welcome him, sources familiar with the case said.

If a crime of this nature is committed more than five years after the date of admission into the country, a second offense is required to merit deportation. Damra has been convicted of only one offense.

White meets daily with immigration and Homeland Security officials about the case.

"I can assure you we are dili gently working on that," White said. "I'm confi dent the process will move for ward."

Damra's im migration attor ney could not be reached to comment on the case.

Damra immigrated to the United States in the mid-1980s. He was a leader of al-Farooq mosque in the Little Arabia section of Brooklyn. It became a hotbed of support for the "holy war" in Afghanistan and was visited by many people who would later be linked to terrorist organizations. Damra became imam, or spiritual leader, of Ohio's largest mosque in 1991. He denied any links to terror groups when he filled out his citizenship application and was interviewed between 1993 and 1994.

In 2004, he was accused of lying on his citizenship application by not disclosing ties to terrorist groups. During his trial, prosecutors showed tapes of a speech Damra gave in 1991 while raising money in Cleveland for the terrorist group Islamic Jihad.

On the tape, Damra told the crowd they must help pay for the battle in the Middle East and described how the money would "direct all the rifles at the first and last enemy of the Islamic nation, and that is the sons of monkeys and pigs, the Jews."

After his conviction in 2004, Damra served two months in prison and two months of house arrest, and was stripped of his citizenship. But he retained his green card and remains a legal resident.

Moskowitz said he is aware of the nature of Damra's comments and fund-raising activities.

His office is taking its time to make sure its deportation case does not have any loopholes, he said.

"We're certainly aware of Damra and the immigration fraud and the reasons underlying," Moskowitz said. "There's no doubt I would do everything in my power to remove someone who is a threat."

With Damra's deportation looking unlikely or far off, people associated with the Islamic Center and with the region's religious community are resigning themselves to the fact he's going to be here awhile.

Damra's support inside the mosque remains solid. He humbly apologized for preaching violence and said he is a changed man. Before his trial, he easily survived a no-confidence vote, winning the support of more than 70 percent of the mosque membership.

A former mosque president who tried to fire Damra ended up resigning in frustration last fall.

"There are still folks in the [Muslim] community who do not want to give him a second chance, and that's sad," said Walid Dardir, a mosque member who once called for Damra to leave. "He's paid his debt. He's willing to be a good leader. Let's embrace him."

This September, a newly elected board of trustees agreed to keep Damra in its employ. The mosque's new president, Dr. Jalal Abu-Shaweesh, said the mosque leadership hopes to leave the scandal in the past.

But in the larger community, Damra's sins may not be so quickly forgotten.

An excerpt from the 1991 videotape is part of a Hate Exhibit at the new Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in Beachwood. Several non-Muslim groups that once worked closely with Damra have minimized communication or cut off contact.

The Cleveland chapter of the American Jewish Committee, once friendly with the grand mosque, looks elsewhere for representatives of moderate Islam.

"We're waiting for the [grand] mosque to take some public stance that we can embrace," said chapter director John Hexter.

Representatives of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese also plan to maintain a cautious distance.

"Basically, we're concerned that some of the things that have been brought to light have caused a lot of uncomfortableness among a lot of people, including Catholics," said the Rev. Joseph Hilinksi, the diocese's interfaith ambassador.

But there are signs Damra's pariah status is fading. After his militant past was exposed, politicians and religious leaders avoided the mosque's signature interfaith event, the annual Ramadan iftar dinner.

This year, some came back. The Oct. 23 dinner drew several ministers, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, State Sen. Dan Brady, and former Cleveland City Council President Frank Jackson.

"I think it's very obvious our relationship with the interfaith community is quite strong," said Abu-Shaweesh, who like Damra is a Palestinian-American. "They were friends of the Islamic Center who showed their support for the imam."