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Somali activist convicted of lying

By Woody Baird

Associated Press

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- A Somali political activist and critic of U.S. treatment of immigrants faces deportation following a conviction Friday on charges he lied to federal authorities when seeking refuge in the United States.

A U.S. District Court jury convicted Omar Jamal, 31, of lying on immigration papers and in interviews in 1998 while living in Memphis.

He was charged with failing to disclose he had been given refuge in Canada before coming to the United States.

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Jamal, now director of the Somali Justice Advocacy Center in St. Paul, has been an outspoken critic of what he calls improper treatment of immigrants since the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

He vowed to continue his work with the center.

"This will not stop me," he said. "I will take the proper channels to appeal, and eventually I hope we will have a different verdict."

Saeed Fahia, who runs the Agency Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, said many Somalis were shocked by the verdict.

Fahia said Jamal is exactly the type of immigrant any country should want.

"He has been a responsible person trying to help the community, trying to connect Somalis to the mainstream, to the authorities," Fahia said. "If someone participates, that means they have respect for what they found here, and they are adapting. He has adapted, and he has tried his best, and he trusted the system."

Jamal argues he did not intentionally lie but was confused by the wording on immigration forms and the questions asked by authorities.

Asked if he had previously gotten refugee status or traveled to other countries he answered no, but he had lived in Canada for two years as a teenager and had also visited Kenya, said defense lawyer Peter Erlinder.

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Erlinder said Jamal has a good chance of avoiding deportation because he has no previous criminal record, is married to a U.S. citizen and has three small children born in the United States.

Erlinder said Jamal would not have become such a vocal critic of U.S. immigration policies if he had knowingly lied on his application for asylum.

The five criminal charges on which he was convicted carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, though federal guidelines for a first-time offender would call for a much lighter punishment.

Jamal is free on bond to await sentencing on April 7.

"According to what they've told us up to now, they're not interested in seeing him incarcerated, and we appreciate that," Erlinder said.

The U.S. attorney's office declined comment.

Jamal still faces administrative charges from the Immigration and Naturalization Service that were put on hold pending the criminal trial.

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