New York Times

January 29, 2003

Custody Fight Disguised as Terror Case

New York Times


HANY KIARELDEEN left family court on Monday after another round in the custody fight for his dark-eyed, ebullient 8-year-old daughter.

"The case belonged here from the beginning," he said. "They should never have believed what was said by a mad wife about her husband."

The case of Hany Kiareldeen went far beyond family court, and became an example of accusations run amok in the age of terrorism.

Mr. Kiareldeen, 34, a Palestinian, was never found guilty of anything, but he has been penalized twice. He was jailed for 19 months in the late 1990's, accused of having ties to terrorism, based on evidence that the government never showed him or anyone else. And he lost contact with his daughter, Nour. She lived with his former wife, who he says was a government source against him.

Freed in October 1999, Mr. Kiareldeen held news conferences and testified before Congress against the use of secret evidence. But he could not escape his second penalty, as he searched in vain for Nour.

Then one afternoon early this month, Mr. Kiareldeen was working at an electronics store he owns with his brother when a woman from Easton, Pa., tracked him down by phone and said, "I have your daughter, and she's O.K."

Mr. Kiareldeen said, "It was like electricity traveled though my body."

The caller, Zeynab Ahmed, told him she was at an Easton mosque in November when she met his former wife, Amal Mohamed, who immediately asked her to watch Nour and a stepsister for two weeks while she went to Egypt. Ms. Ahmed said that almost seven weeks later, with no word from Ms. Mohamed, she went to Ms. Mohamed's house and found documents that led her to Mr. Kiareldeen.

Ms. Ahmed said the girls arrived at her house unkempt and poorly dressed. They came around Thanksgiving, she said, "and Nour was wearing flip-flops." Mr. Kiareldeen has now won temporary sole custody of Nour, said his lawyer, Robert Popescu.

Reached at her home in Pennsylvania, Ms. Mohamed would not comment. Her lawyer, Anthony Barbieri, said she had not abandoned her children, but left them with a friend. "As a mother, she is beyond reproach," he said.

TRUTH is difficult to discern in custody fights. But in Mr. Kiareldeen's terrorism case, it should not have been. Amid the nation's continuing hunt for suspected terrorists, recent events in the Kiareldeen case are stiff reminders of the investigative adage: Consider the source.

The government never named its informers against Mr. Kiareldeen, but it is a good bet that Ms. Mohamed was one of them. The couple's break-up was bitter, particularly after he remarried. He was arrested repeatedly on her complaints of domestic violence, but was never prosecuted "because of the lack of sufficient evidence," according to a court ruling.

According to a March 1995 police report, Ms. Mohamed told the police in Nutley, N.J., that Mr. Kiareldeen and his brother had "ties to certain Islamic groups."

Mr. Kiareldeen was arrested in March 1998 on a visa violation. Federal investigators said they had information that he had held a meeting of terrorists involved in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and had talked of killing Janet Reno. He was never interrogated or charged.

Nineteen months later, a federal judge released him, saying the evidence the government had shown the court lacked "detail or attribution to reliable sources."

While the government imprisoned Mr. Kiareldeen, it protected Ms. Mohamed. An F.B.I. official urged an immigration judge not to deport her, writing in a letter that she could be "of significant help" in investigations. It said she had "good moral character" and wanted to "build a better life for her children."

Mr. Kiareldeen says Nour's life is only now getting better. She is enrolled in second grade here, having been held back because of past truancy. A dentist found numerous cavities and told him, "Your daughter never had dental care," he said. Nour's ninth birthday is in a few days. The party is at a Chuck E. Cheese.

"Sometimes when she goes to sleep," Mr. Kiareldeen said, "I'll go upstairs and sit next to her and I'll give her a kiss. It's unbelievable."

Back in Pennsylvania, Ms. Mohamed fought with Ms. Ahmed over money Ms. Ahmed lent her. Things got so heated that Ms. Mohamed went to the authorities, according to law enforcement officials. They said she claimed Ms. Ahmed had ties to Hamas.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company