Union Tribune

April 29, 2003

'Lost' Egyptian gets caught up in the justice system
Wrong turn in 9/11 aftermath lands him in jail, keeps him there


WASHINGTON Abdelrehim Kewan insists that all he did was take a wrong turn last October and stop at Camp Pendleton to ask for directions.

The 36-year-old Egyptian got more than he bargained for: an indefinite stay in a jail cell and trouble from a federal government under heightened alert after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Kewan's problems began when the Marine base included his name in a report Camp Pendleton is required to file with San Diego's federal Joint Terrorism Task Force. Any unauthorized person who approaches the gate is included in the report.

Two weeks later, immigration agents showed up at Kewan's apartment in San Diego to question him about his stop at the base. They noted that his immigration status was in limbo and led him away in handcuffs, according to arrest reports. Kewan lives alone; his family is in Egypt.

Since Oct. 25, Kewan has been held without bond at the San Diego Correctional Facility on Otay Mesa. No criminal charges have been filed against him.

Neither FBI nor military officials suggest that he was anything more than a lost motorist when he arrived at Camp Pendleton's gate, according to court documents.

But a judge is unconvinced Kewan's story is true. The judge has characterized Kewan as a "danger to the community" and has jailed him indefinitely until his immigration status is resolved.

Unfolding is a classic battle of a jittery national security apparatus and a man seeking his freedom.

For now, Kewan sits in a medium-security prison.

"I have lost time from my life for no reason," he said. "They put me in jail like a criminal; I am not a criminal. Every day I think about what happened. How I took a wrong turn and asked for directions. I believe this is happening because I am an Arab and Egyptian."

Immigration officials have been reluctant to give Kewan the benefit of the doubt, noting that at least 100 Middle Eastern men have been questioned for approaching Camp Pendleton entrances since Sept. 11, 2001. Only Kewan has been detained, according to records and interviews.

Under federal law, immigrants can be detained while awaiting processing if they are deemed a flight or security risk.

Kewan has no criminal record, but he could face deportation if a separate immigration judge denies his petition for permanent residency or a green card.

Seven years ago, Kewan arrived in Boston on a special visa for people who work on ships, but authorities said he overstayed his visa. Within a year, however, he married an American woman and was allowed to stay based on her petition.

The couple divorced after Kewan said his wife mentally and physically abused him. Immigration officials recognized that he had been subject to abuse and have allowed him to stay in this country, pending a final grant of permanent residence.

Several hearings on Kewan's application for a green card have been postponed before Gaylyn Boone, an immigration judge in San Diego. A hearing is tentatively scheduled for next week.

Another San Diego immigration judge, Anthony Atenaide, has been handling the detention matter. Atenaide has denied at least two requests by Kewan's lawyer to release Kewan on bond.

Last week, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued an order buttressing a judge's ability to detain illegal immigrants without bond if they present security concerns.

Atenaide described Kewan's "act of being present on a military base without permission (as a) serious matter."

In a memo, the judge said it was "inexplicable" that Kewan got lost. An immigration appeals board upheld the judge's decision.

Kewan's lawyer, Jonathan D. Montag, said the judge's action was improper because there is no evidence that Kewan poses a risk.

Montag argued that much of the judge's ruling depends on anecdotal evidence about Middle Eastern men presenting themselves at the Camp Pendleton gate and on an FBI report that mistakenly stated that Kewan tried to gain "entry" to the base.

"There is no evidence that my client is a terrorist," Montag said. "The INS (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service) is not charging my client with being a terrorist. No criminal complaints are being prepared."

One of Kewan's American friends, Michael Reschetnikow, 32, said he understands his country's need to protect its borders. "But he's a wonderful, warm-hearted individual and this is a travesty," Reschetnikow said.

The judge, the FBI and military and immigration officials declined comment on Kewan's case.

Lauren Mack, the spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security in San Diego, said officials try to ensure "no one case falls through the cracks in complex detention issues."

Since Kewan's arrest, elements of the government have disagreed over why Kewan stopped at Camp Pendleton on Oct. 10.

Kewan said he turned onto Camp Pendleton after getting lost on his way north on Interstate 5 to a house painting job in Oceanside, about 37 miles from his apartment in San Diego.

He said he was looking for eastbound state Route 78, but when he didn't see any signs and noticed that he had driven past highway 76, he drove to the main gate at Pendleton.

Marines searched Kewan's 1987 Chevy and asked questions, telling him he was being scrutinized as a result of new security policies.

After a background check turned up no wrongdoing, the Marines gave Kewan directions and allowed him to drive off, records show.

Military and terrorism task force investigators testified that they have no reason to contradict Kewan's story that he made a wrong turn into Camp Pendleton, according to court records.

A Navy criminal investigative service official testified there is no indication Kewan is a potential terrorist threat, and she said an FBI report that he tried to enter Camp Pendleton was mistaken, the records show.

But Kathleen Zapata, an assistant district counsel for the Department of Homeland Security in San Diego, raised questions about Kewan's statements, noting there could be varying interpretations "of the circumstances surrounding his apprehension at the entry gate to Camp Pendleton."

Kewan insists his story is the truth: he simply got lost.

As he awaits more rulings on his appeals, he said he wants to get out of jail, but stay in the United States.

"I still want to live here," he said. "There is nothing wrong with this country. I love the country."