New Phone Records Could Prove Iraqi Refugee Innocent of Murder

The Trump administration wants to deport Omar Ameen, accused of killing for ISIS; records obtained by VICE News suggest he couldn't have done it.
December 29, 2020, 10:35pm
Phone Records Could Prove Iraqi Refugee Innocent of Murder
Image via Department of Justice

Omar Ameen and his family, as they tell the story, were asleep when federal agents surrounded their Sacramento apartment in 2018. 

His young son was the first to answer the pounding at the door. The heavily armed officers told the boy they had a warrant for his father’s arrest.

Ameen, then 45, had been accused of killing a police officer in Iraq on behalf of ISIS in June 2014. The warrant was part of an extradition request from the Iraqi government, who wanted the refugee returned to them to stand trial for a murder he and his lawyers say he couldn’t have committed. New evidence obtained by VICE News—a set of phone records that place Ameen, or at least his telephone, far away from the scene of the crime—suggests they're telling the truth.

Ameen arrived in the United States with his wife and three children in November 2014. Before resettling in the U.S., the family was living in Turkey, where they’d gone to apply for asylum after fleeing their hometown of Rawa, a small city in Anbar province. In his refugee application, Ameen said his father was killed by Al Qaeda, and one of his brothers was kidnapped by a group of Shiite militants. For these reasons, he and his family became part of the fewer than one percent of refugees selected for resettlement by the U.N.

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After living briefly in Salt Lake City, Utah, the family moved to Sacramento, California. The kids were enrolled in school. Ameen worked seven days a week as an Uber and delivery driver. He and his wife even began taking English classes. They applied for residency and had a fourth child. By all accounts, the family was adapting quite well to their new life in America, a dream Ameen had wanted for them all along.

Then, in August 2018, the FBI raided the family’s home and took Ameen into custody under an arrest warrant issued by the government of Iraq. Federal prosecutors accused him of killing Iraqi police officer Ihsan Abdulhafiz Jasim, and being a high-ranking member of ISIS responsible for other “heinous acts.” His arrest made international headlines, and his case helped drive home a narrative the Trump administration had been pushing for years: Terrorists are gaming our immigration system to infiltrate the U.S. and carry out attacks.

The problem, however, is that according to Ameen’s lawyers, there’s no possible way their client committed the murder, because he was in Turkey when it took place.

Federal public defenders Ben Galloway and Rachelle Barbour tell VICE News they have spent more than 4,000 hours uncovering a number of contradictions and discrepancies in Ameen’s case. They’ve also brought forth witnesses who have put their client in Turkey during the time of Jasim’s murder. Despite all this, they have struggled for more than two years to obtain his Turkish cell phone records, which they say will establish that their client was in Turkey at the time of the murder. They have been stonewalled by the prosecution and a Justice Department focused on Ameen’s extradition to Iraq, where many international court observers agree he will face a cursory trial and execution.

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After months of investigating, VICE News reporters were able to obtain the records. They spoke to a handful of individuals who confirmed that they remember calling Ameen often in 2014. Ultimately, the records show, at the very least, that Ameen’s phone, and presumably Ameen himself, never left Turkey from May 1, 2014, to August 31, 2014.

On June 22, 2014, the day Jasim was killed, Ameen received two phone calls that geolocated his phone to a neighborhood in Mersin, Turkey, the city where he was living with his family before relocating to the U.S. The calls came in at 2:23 PM and 8:37 PM local time. Both lasted less than a minute. It should be noted that these records only reflect cellular network calls, not communications in text or VOIP on apps like Whatsapp or Viber.

While Galloway and Barbour—who, as the Sacramento Bee reported, have now obtained the records and mentioned them in court filings—say these records will exonerate their client, prosecutors argue U.S. Magistrate Judge Edmund F. Brennan, who is presiding over Ameen’s extradition in the Eastern District of California, shouldn’t even consider them.

In a statement made prior to VICE News receiving the records, U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott said that the Department of Justice considers such records contradictory evidence, which, under the law, is not admissible in extradition hearings.

“Our position is that the evidence would not be considered in this proceeding because it contradicts the witness accounts who place Ameen in Iraq at the time of the murder,” he said. At most, the records “might prove that Ameen’s cell phone was in Turkey rather than Iraq at the time of the murder.  This cell phone location evidence would not obliterate the probable cause established in Iraq’s extradition request, because the cell phone could have been left behind in Turkey.”

Scott told VICE News that the records are best seen as evidence for consideration by the trial court in Iraq.

Judge Brennan has ordered Ameen’s defense team to file a status report by the end of January on the status of its analysis of the records. Meanwhile, Ameen continues to sit in a jail in Sacramento.

This reporting was done as part of an upcoming episode of the Vice documentary series The Source. For six months, VICE News reporters have traveled from Sacramento to Iraq, talking to witnesses, accusers, and those who hold Ameen’s fate in their hands.