A naturalized U.S. citizen residing in Alexandria, Virginia, was arrested today by special agents of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) after being indicted on a felony charge of having fraudulently obtained U.S. citizenship.
Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger of the Eastern District of Virginia, and Special Agent in Charge Patrick J. Lechleitner of HSI Washington, D.C made the announcement.
Mergia Negussie Habteyes, 58, is charged in an indictment, which was returned by a grand jury for the Eastern District of Virginia on Aug. 14, alleging that Negussie told a series of lies to U.S. immigration authorities in the course of obtaining authority to enter the United States as a refugee, subsequently obtaining lawful permanent-resident status, and ultimately obtaining U.S. citizenship. Specifically, the indictment asserts that, when he applied for naturalization in the United States, Negussie falsely stated that he never persecuted persons because of their political opinion, and he failed to disclose that he had committed a crime or offense for which he was not arrested. In fact, according to the indictment, Negussie served as a civilian interrogator in the Higher 3 prison in Ethiopia in the late 1970s, during a period known as the Red Terror. In that role, Negussie is alleged to have participated in the persecution, through brutality, of individuals imprisoned because of their political opinion. Additionally, Negussie falsely stated that he never gave false or misleading information to any U.S. government official while applying for any immigration benefit and that he never lied to U.S. immigration authorities to gain entry or admission into the United States and to obtain immigration benefits.
Negussie’s initial court appearance is at 2:00 p.m. before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael S. Nachmanoff of the Eastern District of Virginia.
“Negussie allegedly concealed his role in persecuting Ethiopian prisoners for their political opinions during that country’s so-called Red Terror period when he applied for, and ultimately obtained, U.S. citizenship,” said Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski. “As this case demonstrates, the Justice Department will not allow the United States to become a safe haven for human rights violators, and we will continue to aggressively prosecute those who seek to exploit our immigration system through fraud and deceit.”
“Negussie sought to outrun his past by allegedly employing deception to fraudulently obtain United States citizenship,” said U.S. Attorney G. Zachary Terwilliger. “This indictment reflects the government’s dedication to investigating and prosecuting criminal immigration cases, including those involving alleged human rights violators.”
“The persecution of individuals for their political opinion and expression violates one of our most basic and foundational tenets as a nation,” said HSI Special Agent in Charge Lechleitner. “We will not allow human rights violators to use lies, fraud and deceit to exploit our laws.”
If convicted, Negussie faces up to 10 years in federal prison. Conviction would also result in automatic revocation of Negussie’s U.S. citizenship as well as likely removal to Ethiopia.
The charges in the indictment are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
The case is being investigated by HSI with the support of the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center (HRVWCC). Established in 2009, the HRVWCC furthers the government’s efforts to identify, locate and prosecute human rights abusers in the United States, including those who are known or suspected to have participated in persecution, war crimes, genocide, torture, extrajudicial killings, female genital mutilation and the use or recruitment of child soldiers. The HRVWCC leverages the expertise of a select group of agents, lawyers, intelligence and research specialists, historians and analysts who direct the government’s broader enforcement efforts against these offenders. The HRVWCC is comprised of ICE HSI’s Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit, ICE’s Human Rights Law Section, FBI’s International Human Rights Unit and DOJ’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section (HRSP).
The case is being jointly prosecuted by Trial Attorney Jamie Perry of the Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section (HRSP) and Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexander Blanchard of the Eastern District of Virginia.
Members of the public who have information about former human rights violators in the United States are urged to contact U.S. law enforcement through the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section.
US Justice Department