The spiritual leader of a mosque in Sharon was arrested yesterday on federal immigration fraud charges, sparking a protest outside the courthouse in Boston by a group of religious leaders and civil rights advocates who called the case a witch hunt.
Muhammad Masood, 49, imam of the 1,500 member Islamic Center of New England, is accused of lying repeatedly to federal immigration officials between 2002 and 2006 in a bid to obtain a green card and ultimately become a US citizen.
The criminal charges follow administrative charges brought by immigration officials last year. That case also drew wide protest from local Muslim leaders, who have accused authorities of ignoring efforts to smooth relations with members of various cultures.
A detailed affidavit filed in federal court alleges that Masood told authorities that after attending a master’s degree program in economics at Boston University in the early 1990s, he returned to his native Pakistan for two years, as required by law, before returning to the United States in 1993 and later applying for residency.
But, the affidavit says, Masood never left Boston, and records show that he continued to live in Boston University housing with his wife and children, even though he was no longer a student. He was cited for a couple of traffic violations and was present when his fifth child was born in Boston in 1992, the affidavit indicates.
Authorities also allege that Masood did not disclose that he had collected state health benefits from 1997 to 2005 and initially denied ever being charged with any crimes, although he later acknowledged that he had been arrested for shoplifting in Norwood in 2000. The charge was later dismissed.
“This is an apparent witch hunt,” said Bilal Kaleem, executive director of the Boston chapter of the Muslim American Society, who stood outside the federal courthouse yesterday with about 40 other supporters during a press conference denouncing Masood’s arrest.
Kaleem said that Masood had been interrogated by the US attorney’s office for six hours last week and was threatened with jail and “humiliation,” unless he cooperated by providing incriminating information against mainstream Muslim leaders in the Boston area.
Kaleem described Masood as an upstanding man of high integrity who was charged with criminal violations after he insisted he had no incriminating information to offer.
In response to the allegations, the office of US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan released a statement saying: “The characterization of this as a government witch hunt is regrettable, as the detailed allegations contained in the complaint affidavit demonstrate there is a clear factual basis for the charges against Mr. Masood.”
US Magistrate Judge Joyce London Alexander released Masood on a $10,000 unsecured bond and scheduled a hearing Aug. 9 on the charges.
Boston lawyer Norman Zalkind, who represents Masood, said his client surrendered yesterday after learning that the criminal complaint had been issued and will plead not guilty at his arraignment.
Masood’s supporters criticized federal prosecutors for seeking criminal charges since he had already been arrested last November on immigration violations that were being handled administratively through the federal immigration court.
In November, Masood and his 24-year-old son, Hassan, were arrested along with 31 others by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in a nationwide crackdown on an alleged scheme to provide religious worker visas to immigrants who were supposed to be working full-time secular jobs but were not.
The immigration fraud charge brought against Masood last fall was dropped, but he is facing a hearing Oct. 11 on charges that he overstayed his visa in the 1990s.
Kaleem said the arrest of Masood on criminal charges damages an initiative launched two years ago to bring law enforcement officials and the members of the Muslim, Arab and Sikh communities together. It is called BRIDGES, which stands for Building Respect in Diverse Groups to Enhance Sensitivity.
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