Saturday, 2:15 PM
By Jonathan Saltzman, Globe Staff
As the spiritual leader of a mosque in Sharon, Muhammad Masood drew praise as a peace-loving imam who participated in interfaith services and even broke the Muslim fast of Ramadan at a local synagogue.
But today, under an agreement with federal immigration authorities, the 50-year-old former imam of the 1,500-member Islamic Center of New England promised to leave the country Friday night and return to his native Pakistan to avoid being arrested and held in jail for months until he is deported.
Masood was sentenced in US District Court in Boston to three years of probation for repeatedly lying to immigration authorities from 2002 to 2006 in a bid to obtain a green card. He pleaded guilty in February to five federal crimes stemming from his actions, which led to a recent deportation order.
Although Masood was relieved to avoid being arrested, he was heartbroken about leaving his wife and eight children and returning to a country where he could be in danger because he preached peace in the United States, said his lawyer, Norman S. Zalkind of Boston.
"This is a very disturbing case to our office,'' he told Judge Douglas P. Woodlock as Masood sat silently next to Zalkind during a brief sentencing hearing. "His family has been living in the country for 20 years. He is totally petrified of going back to Pakistan.''
Woodlock acknowledged that such cases stir strong passions but noted that Masood admitted lying to federal immigration authorities.
"I don't know what you want me to do,'' the judge said. "The defendant was convicted of a crime.''
In fact, agents from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement had planned to arrest Masood immediately after he was scheduled to be sentenced on May 22. The move appeared to startle and anger Woodlock and prompted him to postpone the sentencing.
Recently, Masood reached an agreement with immigration authorities that enabled him to return to Pakistan on his own, which Woodlock said represented "somewhat more humane'' treatment.
Masood declined to comment after he left the hearing to pay a $500 court fee, but Zalkind minced no words.
He said few immigrants were prosecuted for the types of misrepresentations his client made until after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that such cases reflected an anti-Islamic hysteria that resembled the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Zalkind also specificially criticized US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan, saying Sullivan has used federal antiterrorism funds to pursue what are essentially immigration cases.
"Post-9/11, there's a huge budget for terrorism, and they don't find terrorists here in the United States,'' Zalkind said. "So they spend their money on these types of cases.''
In a brief telephone interview, Sullivan said his office does not receive money specifically earmarked for antiterrorism cases, and he denied that Masood's prosecution reflected an anti-Islamic bias.
"The fact of the matter is this individual lied to immigration officials a number of times over a number of years,'' Sullivan said. "The reason why he was prosecuted has nothing to do with his national origin or his faith.''
Masood came to the United States in 1987 under a special visa for exchange students, according to an affidavit by a federal immigration agent. He enrolled at Vanderbilt University and transferred to Boston University the following year to study economics in a master's degree program. He became the imam of the Sharon mosque around 1998, said the affidavit.
In December 2002, Masood admitted when he pleaded guilty that he falsely told authorities in an application for permanent legal residency that he returned to Pakistan from 1991 to 1993 after ending his studies. Immigrants with the visa Masood had are required to return to their country for two years before they can seek a green card. In fact, Masood said, he never left Boston.
He also admitted falsely denying to immigration authorities that he had been arrested for any crimes. He was arrested for allegedly shoplifting in Norwood in 2000. The charge was dismissed.
Masood had faced a maximum of 10 years in prison on three of the federal charges, but his lawyer and prosecutors reached a deal to spare him imprisonment.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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