A New Jersey physics teacher who says he faces death by hanging in Egypt because he’s a pro-democracy dissident is being held at an immigration detention center in New Jersey and may soon be deported.
“If they send me back to Egypt they will kill me, and I will not see my wife and children again,” said Ahmed Abdelbasit Mohammad, who goes by Ahmed Abdelbasit, in a scratchy phone interview on Sunday from Elizabeth Contract Detention Center. The 33-year-old father of three said that he was sentenced to death in absentia in Egypt, so if he’s deported he will be taken from the airport, tortured and then hanged. “The Egyptian government will not wait one minute to kill me,” he said.
Abdelbasit was a physics professor and doctoral candidate at the University of Cairo, but he was fired in 2014 after working as an organizer and spokesperson for protesters who opposed the military coup that led to the election of the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Abdelbasit fled to Qatar, where he got another university job, but in 2016 he was tried in absentia on terrorism charges and sentenced to death in a military trial in Egypt that was analyzed and criticized by Human Rights Watch. The organization said the civilian defendants were denied due process and confessions were obtained under torture, including one man’s allegation that Abdelbasit provided money to the leader of a terrorist cell.
Abdelbasit arrived in the United States on a visitor visa. He applied for asylum and the government gave him a work permit while his application was reviewed. That’s when he began teaching physics at an Islamic school in Union City.
But his application for asylum was denied. He said he had yet to be notified of that fact, however, when he was detained. Abdelbasit said in the interview that he was leaving his home in Jersey City on April 5, headed to school, when eight or nine agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement approached him. He said only one was wearing clothing identifying himself as law enforcement.
Abdelbasit was instructed to get his passport and then go with ICE to the privately run detention center in Elizabeth, where immigrants arrested in New York and New Jersey are often held.
“It’s not clear why they would feel the need to detain somebody who has no criminal record in the United States, who has been living a very law-abiding life here and has been doing everything correctly,” Anwen Hughes, Abdelbasit’s lawyer at Human Rights First, told HuffPost, which first reported this story. “It’s very unclear why this happened. What we’re trying to find out at the moment is what the actual basis is for this.”
Under an executive order signed by President DonaldTrump, ICE is increasingly detaining immigrants who have no criminal record but lack permanent legal residency.
Abdelbasit’s students at Rising Star Academy, where he is a popular teacher, created a website, Save Basit, to support him. They also visited him at the detention center. He said he told them: “I will be back, try to study hard, I will teach you.”
“My school supports me a lot — that’s because they know me,” he said. “I believe in American values. I believe in American principles.”
Abdelbasit has a May 10th immigration hearing. A spokesman for ICE said only that he was being held on unspecified “immigration violations.”
“I don’t have any chance to live if I reach Egypt,” Abdelbasit said in the interview. “They will take me away from the airport, and hang me … I will never see my kids again.”