Against the law?

Germany divided over illegal deportation of man linked to Al Qaeda

Treffen der EU-Innenminister
Horst Seehofer: under pressure over immigration. Source: DPA

Sami A. had reportedly worked as a bodyguard for Osama bin Laden, so no-one thought he was a good citizen. But he was deported last week despite a court order stating he could stay in Germany.

Now, his case could become the next immigration scandal. Born in Tunisia, Sami A. originally came to Germany to study in 1997. He apparently traveled to Afghanistan for military training by Al Qaeda, where he worked as a bodyguard to bin Laden for a short time, according to a witness in a court case from 2005.

Sami A. denies this, and also that he had ever been to Afghanistan. He has been living in Bochum with his German wife and four children since he returned to Germany and his asylum application was declined in 2006. He was also designated a “dangerous Salafist preacher” by the authorities, who believe that he radicalized two young men, and were observing him. His story is well-known in the German press, and Bild newspaper has featured 40 stories about him since 2012, spanning his receipt of welfare, his plan to open a mosque in a former neighborhood nail salon, and the requirement he register daily with local police.

The authorities in North Rhine-Westphalia wanted to deport Sami A. to Tunisia, but were unable to do so given the risk that he could be subject to torture. Under German law, a person cannot be deported unless the country they would be deported to confirms that the deportee would not be tortured.

‘I was kidnapped’

On Friday, officials came to Sami A.’s door at 3 a.m. to take him away, in what he describes as a kidnapping. Now, officials are rushing to emphasize that they acted lawfully.

“I told the police, you cannot do this, a court says I cannot be deported,” Sami A. told German journalists via his Tunisian lawyer. “But they told me that their orders came from the highest authority and that I couldn’t do anything about that. I never thought this could happen in a law-abiding country like Germany.”

He was right. A court in Gelsenkirchen decided on Thursday evening that he could not be deported, although the police didn’t hear of the decision until 8 a.m. Friday morning. By that time, Sami A. was already on a plane to Tunis.

There seems to have been a serious communication breakdown. The officials in Bochum responsible for the deportation say they had not heard about the court case. The Interior Ministry knew the deportation was set for Friday but was not sure of the flight times. The court itself apparently hadn’t counted on such a swift deportation.

On Friday, the Gelsenkirchen court called the move “grossly illegal.” The judge wants to bring Sami A. back to Germany to resolve the case. But the state ministry for refugees, headed by Joachim Stamp, a member of the Free Democratic Party, disagreed, as did Armin Laschet, the state premier. He said the court’s decision came too late and people should be happy that a dangerous person is no longer in the country.

FILE PHOTO: A roadside vendor sells newspapers with headlines about the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in Lahore
Sami A. denies having worked Osama bin Laden's bodyguard. Source: Reuters

The case is now dividing the federal government in Berlin. Steffen Seibert, a government spokesman, said on Monday that “What an independent court decides, must stand.”

The justice minister agreed. Social Democrat Katarina Barley said, “When the authorities decide which judicial decision they follow and which they don’t, that’s the end of the rule of law.”

Some suspect the interior minister, Horst Seehofer, is responsible for the speed of the deportation. He was known to be eager to resolve the case. And he has been under fire recently after his hard line stance on migration threatened to topple Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. Last week, he faced calls to resign after joking that 69 Afghan refugees were deported on his 69th birthday, on July 4. One man killed himself shortly after landing in Afghanistan.

“Above all we need to clarify whether Interior Minister Horst Seehofer tried to circumvent the court’s decision,” the leader of the Green party, Robert Habeck, said in an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung. He argued that either the officials were not working together at all, and that there was chaos, or there was some form of order from higher-ups, that didn’t need to be spoken out loud but was understood. “Seehofer has said very clearly: We are deporting this man.”

Ulrich Battis, a professor specializing in constitutional law at Humboldt University in Berlin, suggested that Mr. Seehofer decided it was worth overriding the rule of law to win political capital.

On Monday, a spokesperson for the interior ministry issued a statement denying any interference. Although the ministry had been in touch with the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and both wanted Sami A.’s case resolved, the ministry had “absolutely no influence on any procedural steps,” the statement said.

Though Sami A.’s case comes just before parliament takes a summer break, it seems unlikely to be resolved soon. The Tunisian authorities want to keep him for questioning. And Mr. Seehofer and North Rhine-Westphalia’s Mr. Stamp postponed a long-planned meeting on deportations until shortly after the break.

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