Now a Free Man, Houston Imam Clings to Hope

May 15, 2009

Author: Lindsay Wise

Source: The Houston Chronicle

Sheikh Zoubir Bouchikhi stepped out of a friend’s car as twilight fell over his southeast Houston neighborhood this week, an electronic monitor blinking on his ankle.

The last time the 39-year-old spiritual leader of Abu Bakr Siddqui mosque had stood in his own driveway, he’d been in handcuffs. Now, after five months at an immigration detention center in Houston, the imam was free on $20,000 bail. And yet for a moment, only yards from his front door, he couldn’t move. His feet seemed to sink into the pavement, relief tugging hard like quicksand.

“The sun was setting, and I felt like a phase of my life was setting with the sun,” he said. “Hopefully a new phase of my life will begin.”

Bouchikhi’s release on Wednesday comes on the heels of a grass-roots campaign by his supporters, who pressed the government for months to release the imam on bail while he awaits a deportation hearing.

Last week, Bouchikhi’s lawyer, Brian Bates, filed a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court in Houston, seeking relief from unlawful imprisonment. The 20-page document (read it here) details a Kafkaesque nightmare of unreturned phone calls, unresponsive bureaucrats and confusion over which official was handling the imam’s case. In the document, Bates describes making dozens of calls to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials after his client’s arrest Dec. 17, only to be juggled between voice mails and a handful of different officers and supervisors who either failed to return messages, or passed responsibility to others.