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Charges weigh on imam, backers

Local support for Masood remains strong, says rabbi

Muhammad Masood and his family could face deportation.
Muhammad Masood and his family could face deportation. (Photo provided by Muslim American Society)

Facing criminal charges stemming from allegations of immigration fraud, Imam Muhammad Masood - the public face of the New England Center of Islam in Sharon - finds himself in an increasingly difficult position, and could face deportation.

Masood was arrested in a sweep by immigration enforcement officers almost a year ago, losing his position as the center's imam, his income, and his right to work for money in the United States because the charges stripped him of legal immigration status.

"We try to help," said Rabbi Barry Starr of Temple Israel in Sharon, one of several local clergy who have rallied around Masood and circulated a petition in his behalf.

But, he said, there's a lot of "disappointment" in Sharon "in how the case is playing out."

The next chapter in the case will come Tuesday, when it goes back to federal court. This time, Masood is facing far more serious charges.

Two months ago, US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan's office raised the immigration violations filed against Masood to criminal charges.

The government's original immigration case charged him with violating immigration law 15 years ago and making false statements about that period in subsequent immigration documents. In announcing the criminal indictment in August, Sullivan's office said Masood "repeatedly lied" in immigration documents.

A nine-count felony indictment charged him with fraud and misuse of documents required by the immigration laws; making false statements in a matter relating to the registry of aliens; and making false statements to citizenship and immigration services.

Masood pleaded not guilty and has been free on bail. While unwilling to discuss details of the case, defense attorney Norman Zalkind called the possible consequences of the case "disastrous" for Masood, including "deportation, conviction, and possible incarceration."

The criminal case against him is in the discovery phase (where prosecution evidence is shown to the defense), Zalkind said, and the session Tuesday is a status hearing. Though the case is technically in an early phase, Zalkind said it could be resolved relatively quickly because there are no codefendants. Asked why he felt the case had been brought, Zalkind said that the government appeared to be "targeting Muslim cases more aggressively."

If the charges result in a guilty finding or plea, Masood will almost certainly be deported.

A spokeswoman for Sullivan's office said she could not comment on any aspect of the prosecution beyond the information released at the time of the indictment. She also declined to comment on Zalkind's claim that the government is being more aggressive in pursuing immigration cases against Muslims.

Masood's wife and five of his seven children, born outside the United States, are also facing immigration charges. The family's immigration lawyer, William Joyce, said he will make "appeals for relief" when their cases go back to court in January, possibly including an appeal for amnesty on the grounds that it would not be safe for the family to be deported to Pakistan, where anti-American feeling is strong, because of Masood's "pro-American" reputation.

Masood initially entered the country on a student visa in the late 1980s, bringing his wife and children to live with him while he studied at Boston University. Immigration law required those holding student visas to leave the United States for at least two years before applying to return.

Masood has said that he did go back to Pakistan but returned to the United States illegally before the two years was up. He said he paid a fine for this violation as part of an amnesty program and believed that his application for a green card - signifying permanent residence status - was in order as it made its way through the government's immigration bureaucracy.

The government alleges that Masood never returned to Pakistan, and offers as evidence records from 1991-93 show that he continued to live with his family in BU housing, got jobs, bought a car, received traffic tickets, and was with his wife at the hospital when their youngest child was born. He faces up to 10 years' imprisonment for each of the counts.

"They have some evidence," Joyce acknowledged, though Masood has said his driver's license was used by someone else. Masood no longer speaks about the case, on Zalkind's advice.

Supporters say that in prosecuting a Muslim clergyman whose message was that Islam stands for peace, the government may also be dealing a blow to community understanding. As imam, Masood was active in regional interfaith activities, youth events, and in raising the profile of American Muslims at a time when the public image of Islam was tainted by Muslim extremists and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

And support for Masood in Sharon remains strong.

"The clergy still appreciates who he is and what he did," Starr said. "We're still behind him."

At last month's "Sacred Seasons" interfaith event at Temple Israel, celebrating the conjunction of religious holidays and attended by hundreds, said Starr, Masood "received kudos from everybody. People came over to talk to him. People wanted to know his story."

Joyce said Masood's family receives help from the community ("somebody brings over a bag of groceries"), but faces increasing difficulties in remaining in the country without his income. "It's a very bad situation," he said.

Supporters said the prosecution may also have a chilling effect on the region's Muslims. "It's being taken hard by the entire community," Starr said. "I suspect it will have ramifications in terms of what it means to reach out to America."

Robert Knox can be contacted at rc.knox@gmail.com.

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