The government may have wanted Imam Masood to talk about his brothers, one of whom is a well-known terrorist leader in their native Pakistan. Now it appears prosecutors want the former Sharon imam to leave the country, too, and soon.
Why has the government pursued a criminal case against Imam Muhammad Masood, when he already faced probable deportation for immigration charges?
That question has hung over the prosecution of the former spiritual leader of the Islamic Center of New England’s Sharon mosque since he was arrested on the criminal charges last summer. Now it’s being raised again, as he awaits sentencing on June 5.
The 50-year-old Pakistan native wasn’t accused – at least publicly – of having ties with extremist groups. But the fact that one of his brothers is a terrorist leader has led to much speculation about the true nature of the government’s aims.
The criminal counts against Masood were the same as the visa violations for which he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in November 2006. Both charged he didn’t leave the United States in 1991, as required by his student visa, and then lied about that and several other things when he applied for a Permanent Resident Card, popularly known as a “green card.”
In February, he pleaded guilty to five charges of visa fraud. If he’s sentenced to three years of probation next week, as expected, his deportation proceedings will resume in Immigration Court.
The double prosecution has led many in the Muslim community – and some non-Muslims as well – to wonder whether the government’s real aim has been to pressure him for information about his brothers, Imam Mahmood Hamid and terrorist leader Muhammad Saeed.
Saeed is notorious, from Pakistan to the United Nations, which has banned his group Lashkar-e-Toiba (Soldiers of the Pure). Imam Hamid was spiritual leader of the Worcester Islamic Center from 1999 until last June, when he and his family abruptly flew back to Pakistan amid questions about his visa status.
There probably won’t be an explanation for the dual cases until U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan of Abington breaks his silence after Imam Masood is sentenced. He has made no comment thus far.
Some legal scholars say such prosecutions aren’t so unusual, but the imam’s attorneys have used terms like “overkill” and “hardball” for the strategy – particularly since the imam has publicly disowned his radical brother and been active with interfaith programs.
If there were any evidence to the contrary, his attorneys say, the government would have made that part of the criminal case from the start. Legal scholars and other observers – including some area clergy – see the case the same way.
Boston College law professor and civil rights expert Robert Bloom says it appears that the government assumes – despite Imam Masood’s statements – that he knows more than he’s telling. Since he’s not providing what prosecutors are looking for, Bloom said, they’re using “small-time immigration stuff” that’s easy to document, to force him out of the country as soon as possible.
If that is the government’s strategy, it appears to be working.
The criminal case and Imam Masood’s plea have silenced protests from the Islamic Center. (Several former board members were subpoenaed by the grand jury that indicted the imam.) Advocates like the Muslim American Society of Boston have been reduced to mild calls for letting the imam stay in this country.
And for first time, Imam Masood’s immigration lawyer says he’s ready to negotiate a voluntary departure, rather than fight the deportation – which, Bloom says, may have been the government’s aim from the start.
Lane Lambert may be reached at email@example.com.
History behind the charges