Authorities are holding a Muslim cleric who was ousted from Canada three years ago and discovered this month hiding in the trunk of a BMW after after he illegally crossed into San Diego County from Mexico.
Said Jaziri, a Tunisian imam, is expected to testify against American citizen Kenneth Robert Lawler, who was driving the vehicle Jan. 11. Lawler is charged with immigrant smuggling.
According to court documents, Jaziri traveled from Tunisia to Spain to Guatemala to El Salvador to Belize and then to Chetumal, Mexico. He rode a bus from there to Tijuana, where he found someone to smuggle him into the U.S.
Jaziri said he paid $5,000 to a smuggling group, namely a white man named Robert who spoke English.
“He told Robert he just wanted to go to a safe place anywhere in the United States,” court records show.
Jaziri will undergo deportation proceedings for illegal entry and unlawful presence in the U.S. after the case against Lawler is closed, said Steven Pitts, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol.
In 2007, Jaziri was deported from Canada to Tunisia for lying on his refugee application about jail time he served in France years earlier. His supporters said Canadian officials targeted him for his Islamic fundamentalism, according to news reports in Canada.
As imam of the Al-Qods mosque in Montreal, Jaziri was well-known for being outspoken on behalf of Sharia, a strict form of Islamic law, including his denunciation of homosexuality.
News reports also said he was a notable figure on issues related to reasonable accommodation, which in Canada refers to the debate over whether anti-discrimination laws require the government, schools, businesses and others to change certain practices to honor minorities’ cultural and religious beliefs.
The apprehension of a high-profile and controversial figure is unusual in the San Diego border sector, Pitts said.
Last year, only 2 percent of the people apprehended in this sector said they weren’t Mexican, Pitts said. A breakdown of countries of origin for those 1,306 individuals wasn’t immediately available. So far this year, 254 of the sector’s 11,000 apprehensions have been listed as “other than Mexican.”
Jaziri successfully scaled a border wall on Jan. 10 and made an overnight trek through the backcountry, according to court documents. He, the guide and Mexican national Gonzalo Gutierrez-Mercado emerged near Tierra Del Sol Road close to the intersection of Moon Valley Road, where the BMW was waiting. The guide helped the men into the vehicle before he ran away, the documents said.
A group of state firefighters watched the men climb into the BMW and one of them reported the incident to a border Patrol agent. The agent then alerted other agents, who spotted the vehicle and apprehended it near the Golden Acorn Casino.
Lawler, who told authorities that he was homeless and unemployed, said he was instructed to take Jaziri and Gutierrez-Mercado to a parking lot in Mission Viejo for a hand-off. The travelers’ final destination remains unknown, according to court records.
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