This is a story about the trickery of time. Sometimes the world changes on a dime, as it did on Sept. 11, and with the transformation of the present, the past, too, can suddenly take on a different hue. This, it seems, is what happened to Ibrahim Parlak. Indeed, it’s tough to choose the tense in which to tell his story. He runs — or ran — a Middle Eastern restaurant. It’s in Harbert, Mich., a small summer resort town, an hour and a half by car from Chicago, along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Parlak is a Kurd from Turkey and had been in this country for 13 years when, on the morning of July 29 last year, he was arrested by officers with the Department of Homeland Security and taken into custody. He was charged with crimes relating to his time in Turkey, when he had been involved with a Kurdish separatist group.
D.H.S. declared that he was -and consequently still is — a terrorist. A spokeswoman told the Associated Press at the time of his arrest, “We think that if most people knew the details they would see him as someone they wouldn’t want living in their community.” Those details included the fact that before immigrating to the U.S., he had illegally crossed the Turkish border and, armed with an AK-47, a pistol and a grenade, was involved in a firefight in which two Turkish soldiers were killed. He was compared to former Nazis who had hidden their pasts to become U.S. citizens. A nearby newspaper in LaPorte County, Ind., The Herald-Argus, ran the headline “Terrorist 22 Miles Away?” A D.H.S. prosecutor mentioned him in the same breath as Osama bin Laden.
But the people around Parlak — not just his close friends but customers and former employees, business competitors and neighbors — saw things differently.
After Parlak’s arrest, one of his closest friends, Martin Dzuris, who had fled Communist Czechoslovakia and who is now a loyal George W. Bush supporter, built a Web site and organized a letter-writing campaign to politicians. Parlak’s tennis partner, Marty Goldrick, a square-jawed, retired Whirlpool executive, drove 120 miles to Lansing to lobby a U.S. senator on Parlak’s behalf, the first political act he had ever undertaken. Jo Ann Jansky, a tough-talking waitress who worked for Parlak when he managed a truck stop, attached a plastic flag to her car’s antenna. It read: “Free Ibrahim” — as did signs that sprouted on front lawns like daisies. In their windows, businesses taped posters with a similar plea; they featured a picture of Parlak in his chef’s apron. To help cover Parlak’s legal costs, a competitor down the road sponsored a fund-raiser, which brought in $25,000. (A friend contributed $750, but told me he did it anonymously, not because he was afraid to take a public stand, but rather because he says that otherwise Parlak would insist on repaying him.) A police officer in town, David Duis, took a day off work to testify at Parlak’s bond hearing. “If Ibrahim moved next to me,” he told me, “I’d welcome it. He’s just a classy guy.”
Even people who knew him only peripherally offered their support. A plumber who had done some work in the restaurant stopped by and, holding back tears, told Parlak’s brother not to worry about the bill. Carol Marin, a TV journalist who had dined at the restaurant, wrote editorials in The Chicago Sun-Times urging the government to drop the charges. I was at the restaurant one afternoon when two faculty members from a nearby university dropped off a small contribution and a card. They explained that their school had warned them about getting involved and forbade them to associate the school in any way with the case, so they left the card unsigned. One friend commented that it was like a contemporary version of the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as Parlak’s small, everyday gestures had suddenly taken on added significance. In the wake of 9/11, his friends were fairly certain that they knew evil, and in their minds Parlak wasn’t it. Not even close.
How is it that two groups of individuals — Parlak’s small-town friends and the U.S. government — can look at one man, at one case, at one situation and come to such disparate conclusions? Are his friends so close to him that they can’t see what might have been ugliness in his past? Or is the government so intent on proving that it’s tough on terrorism that it has lost its moral bearing?
On April 13, 1991, Ibrahim Parlak, who was 28 at the time, arrived in the United States. He was on the run, and so was both relieved and tired. He had recently been released from a Turkish prison, and the authorities there had been putting pressure on him to rat out friends. Moreover, his family had received death threats. So he fled. His father sold a tractor and other farm equipment, and his sisters sold some of their jewelry to raise the several thousand dollars needed for plane tickets and a false passport. Parlak remembers clearly something his father told him before he left: “You’re old enough and have been through enough to know what is right and what is wrong. But no matter what you do, don’t stay in the front or the back, find a place in the middle.” By that he meant find a place of comfort and safety.
Parlak told me he had planned his departure carefully. The day before leaving, he went to a Turkish barber and asked for “an American haircut,” and he purchased new clothes, including a leather jacket, so that he wouldn’t attract attention. Accompanying Parlak on the flight was a Turkish businessman, whom Parlak had just met and whose travel expenses he paid in exchange for carrying newspaper clippings and other documents that could help Parlak establish an asylum claim. Parlak didn’t want to transport the papers himself for fear that he might be stopped and searched along the way. He was also traveling on a false passport, and so brought papers that could establish his real identity.
In Chicago, the businessman took him to a city college, where there was a language program for new refugees. There they met Ruth Lambach, its director. Lambach was immediately drawn to Parlak. “I looked at Ibrahim in my office,” she recalls. “I could feel that he was on the edge of his life, that he didn’t have that many options. He had this amazing warmth and fire in his eyes.” Parlak is a slender, handsome man, but it’s his eyes that most people comment on. They’re deep-set and simultaneously sad and sparkling. “Dancing eyes,” Lambach calls them. “Alert, curious, alive.” Lambach offered to let him stay on her couch for the night. He spent much of the next year there, becoming good friends with Lambach and her son. In those days, Lambach and Parlak, who spoke no English, communicated in German.
Rebellion and Capture
Parlak immediately applied for political asylum, and two weeks after his arrival went downtown to the immigration building where he was interviewed about his claim. There are a number of critical moments in Parlak’s story, and this one has taken on added significance, especially when looked back on through the prism of today’s reordered world. In 1980, Congress passed legislation formalizing the asylum process, in part to be in compliance with the longstanding United Nations Convention on refugees and in part to respond to the influx of Soviet citizens fleeing Communist rule. Over time, the process for asylum seekers has become more demanding and systematic, but in 1991 it was a rather straightforward one that relied heavily on the intuition of the immigration officer. Asylum is given to people who can show a reasonable likelihood that if they were to return to their countries, they’d be persecuted because of their religion, race, nationality, social group or political beliefs; it cannot, however, be given to people who have persecuted others. Applicants must provide what documentation and narrative they can to substantiate their claims, though in the end, at least in 1991, much of it came down to a matter of trust. The immigration officer had to decide whether the applicant’s story was believable.
There is a place on the application where Parlak had to list his residences of the last five years, the most recent first. It reads like a haiku of his experience:
Prison in Gaziantep
Mountains of Maras
P.K.K. Camp, Halvi, Lebanon
It’s unclear whether Parlak told the asylum officer about his childhood, since the notes from that interview begin with high school. But Parlak grew up on a farm with four brothers and five sisters; his father grew wheat, cotton and watermelon. It was not an easy time to be a Kurd in Turkey, especially for someone as independent-minded as Parlak. In the 1970’s, Turkey refused to recognize the Kurds as a distinct ethnic group even though half the world’s Kurds — an estimated 10 to 12 million — lived in the country.
The Kurds were concentrated in the mountainous regions in the east and south, where few of their villages had electricity or running water. It has generally been Turkey’s belief that the Kurds need to assimilate and become Turks, in language, culture and identity. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Kurdish language was forbidden for official use. Schools taught only in Turkish. Newspapers or television could not use the Kurdish language. Parents could not give their children Kurdish names. Kurdish songs and books were banned. Parlak tells the story of the time the military came through his village, and while his father threw books into a fire, Parlak and one of his brothers tried to salvage what they could, burying them in a nearby field. When Parlak was in first grade, a classmate reported to the authorities that Parlak spoke Kurdish in his home. When he got to school, his teacher hit him with a wooden cane and then humiliated him by making him stand by the blackboard all day.
Parlak’s father sent him to the nearby city, Gaziantep, for high school, and it’s here that Parlak’s asylum testimony picks up. Parlak told the immigration officer that it was in Gaziantep that he became involved with the burgeoning Kurdish rights movement, attending meetings and political protests. At one rally, where he was distributing leaflets and hanging posters, the police arrested him. He was held for three months — without ever appearing in front of a judge — before being released. He was 16. Realizing the danger of his involvement in Kurdish affairs, Parlak left for the safety of Germany, where he lived for the next seven years.
During that time, the mid-1980’s, the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., emerged as the leading force for Kurdish rights. It was a Marxist-Leninist insurgent group (though with no ties to Moscow) that advocated an independent Kurdish state and was led by Abdullah Ocalan, who would eventually earn a reputation for his zealotry and brutality (including against P.K.K. members when he lost trust in them). The P.K.K. conducted guerrilla raids in southeast Turkey, killing soldiers and police officers as well as civilians who sympathized with the Turkish authorities. In Europe, Parlak became active in the P.K.K.’s political arm and organized Kurdish cultural festivals throughout the continent. They had a dual purpose: to fuel a sense of Kurdish identity as well as to raise money for P.K.K. activities. Parlak used a pseudonym, Ayhan.
Parlak missed his family, and he carried around their photographs, trying to memorize their faces so that he wouldn’t forget them. He couldn’t call them because his parents’ village didn’t have telephones. After seven years in Europe, Parlak decided to return home, with the assistance of the P.K.K. He thought he could be more effective advocating Kurdish rights in Turkey than he could from afar.
He told the immigration officer in Chicago that he left Germany for eastern Lebanon, where he trained at a P.K.K. camp for eight months and where he learned skills to survive in the mountains. He led a group of five Kurds, and with Syrian smugglers as guides, crossed the border from Syria into Turkey. A Turkish patrol discovered them, and a firefight ensued. In recounting this story for the asylum officer, Parlak — with the businessman who accompanied him translating — told her: “We were shot at with automatic guns. Three of my friends were injured, and we returned the gunfire.” He didn’t mention that in the skirmish two Turkish soldiers were killed. He did, however, submit a Turkish newspaper article that recounted the incident. The businessman translated the article and left out mention of the soldiers’ deaths. This omission, which Parlak said he didn’t know about at the time, would become important to the government’s case against Parlak.
Parlak evaded capture, and a couple of weeks later, he crossed into Turkey successfully, spending the next six months hiding in the mountains by day and traveling by night. Parlak has always maintained that he was there doing political work, visiting villages to talk about Kurdish rights and Kurdish culture and to put families of prisoners in touch with support groups in Europe. (Turkey has never accused him of being involved in any combat outside of the border skirmish.) On the afternoon of Oct. 29, 1988, as he sat in a small hole he had dug into the side of a mountain eating a late lunch of macaroni, he was surrounded by the local police and Turkish soldiers. For a brief moment, Parlak considered fighting his way out, but thought better of it, and instead hastily tried — unsuccessfully — to burn a journal and some photographs. Parlak was arrested, and over the next four weeks was continually tortured. He didn’t go into details with the asylum officer, though he told her that he still had the scars.
Parlak was put on trial in the State Security Courts, a separate judicial system the Turkish government had established to try leftists and Kurdish separatists. He was tried along with 57 other suspected militants; he faced the death penalty for his association with the P.K.K. and for his involvement in the deaths of the two soldiers (though the court concluded he had not shot them). But his sentence was reduced because he directed the Turkish police to a buried munitions cache and promised to end his involvement in Kurdish causes. He was released after serving 16 months in prison.
This was not, however, what he told the asylum officer. Rather, he told a half-truth: that he won an early release because of bribes his family paid to the police and the judge. His family did pay something to the local police, Parlak says, but he knew that wasn’t the complete picture. Parlak now feared the P.K.K., and so figured the fewer people who knew about his turning over information, the better. He also felt ashamed. “I accepted a bargain,” he told me. “I felt selfish.” At his asylum hearing, along with newspaper articles, his discharge papers from prison and a recent internal police memo that said he was wanted for questioning, Parlak brought with him a report from Human Rights Watch, which condemned Turkey for its mass political trials and for its use of torture, which “continued unabated.”
At the end of her interview, the immigration officer asked Parlak, “What do you think would happen to you if you returned to Turkey?”
“Everything,” Parlak replied. “I’d be lucky to be alive after two to three weeks.”
Parlak was given working papers after the interview and was granted asylum the following year. In doing so, the U.S. government gave Parlak refuge, assurance that it would protect him, that it would ensure his safety, that in the words of Parlak’s father, it would give him “a place in the middle.” Parlak says he thought to himself: One part of my life is behind me. I can start something new.
A Place of Comfort
Parlak slowly learned English, and took his first job, as a room-service waiter at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago. In his first year here, on a blind date arranged by Lambach, he met Michele Gazzolo, a 31-year-old graduate student who grew up in a Chicago suburb. Gazzolo says she thought Parlak was “resolute about everything he did or thought.” When she asked him if he liked verse, he replied, “I don’t have time for poetry.” Parlak told Gazzolo about his time in Turkey and his involvement with the Kurdish separatist movement, and on their first date drew the outlines of Kurdistan on a napkin. Kurdistan is the imagined future home of the roughly 22 million Kurds who live in a contiguous area that reaches into Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. “He impressed me as being a person who knew who he was and what he cared about,” Gazzolo recalls. The two soon moved in together.
Parlak had trouble sleeping, and often in the middle of the night he would go to the kitchen, turn on the light and puff on a Winston cigarette. He was haunted. Gazzolo tried to get him to talk; his stories came out in bits and pieces. He told Gazzolo that after he was arrested he was blindfolded and placed in a box-size cage where the ceiling was too low to stand upright. But he couldn’t sit either, since there was a layer of frigid water and excrement on the floor. He spent more than a week in this cage, and when he was able to fall asleep, in a crouching position, guards would spray him with a hose to wake him. His genitals, he told Gazzolo, still ached from the jolts of electric shock administered by interrogators. He once was tied to a wall, and had a sandbag that hung by a rope repeatedly knocked against his chest. He’d go days without food, and when his captors gave him bread they would smear it in excrement. He finally gave information to the authorities when they threatened to harm his father. Gazzolo tried to persuade Parlak to get some help, but he refused. He wanted to put it behind him, and he feared that talking about it would only invigorate the memories.
Gazzolo’s parents had a summer home in Harbert, and occasionally, she would take Parlak there. He fell in love with the area, especially the long, winding sandy beaches, and relished the distance from the big city, mostly because he wanted to keep his distance from the Kurdish community. He still worried that the P.K.K. might seek revenge on him for turning over the munitions cache to the Turkish government. He soon found a job managing a truck stop. He had a reputation for working long hours, sometimes three shifts in a row, and for being an outstanding cook. Truckers would radio others about Parlak’s lentil soup. Jo Ann Jansky, the tough-talking waitress, was struck by his generosity. When Jansky lost her job, Parlak came by her house a few days before Christmas and handed her a check for $500. This, he told Jansky, was to buy presents for her grandchildren.
Parlak very much wanted his own restaurant, and so, in 1994, he opened Cafe Gulistan in a small, low-slung building along the Red Arrow Highway, a busy thoroughfare that runs along the lake. Gulistan means “land of roses”; it’s how he and his friends in Turkey referred to Kurdistan because they couldn’t refer to it by name. He planted rosebushes in front of the restaurant and hollyhocks along the side, and decorated the inside with Kurdish artifacts and photographs of Kurdish children.
Parlak, in his reserved, unassuming manner, found a community of friends. There was, for instance, Goldrick, the retired Whirlpool executive. He, Parlak and a local contractor took tennis lessons together, and nearly every Sunday night would gather for dinner at Cafe Gulistan, a ritual that they kept for three years until Parlak’s arrest. Goldrick served as a Marine officer in Vietnam, and so he and Parlak would exchange stories about survival in the bush. “I came to consider him a very good friend,” Goldrick told me, “one of the greatest human beings I’ve had the good fortune to know.”
David Duis, who has been a local patrol officer for 18 years, recalls talking to Parlak when Cafe Gulistan was burglarized. Restaurant burglaries, Duis told me, are usually the work of an employee, and so the first thing he asked of Parlak was to interview the workers there. Parlak resisted. “He didn’t want me to subject his employees to what he thought would be some kind of interrogation,” Duis recalled. “He treated his employees like family.” The burglary turned out to have been done by outsiders. Duis became a regular customer. After 9/11, his police unit was asked by the F.B.I. for background on Parlak. Duis couldn’t understand why they’d be concerned about him.
In 1997, Parlak and Gazzolo had a daughter, Livia. Though they have split up, they have remained good friends, and Parlak has participated in their daughter’s upbringing. Livia helped her father in the garden, and he taught her what each herb tasted like so she could pick them for his cooking. He called her maymun, Kurdish for “little monkey.” He joined her school’s parents’ association, and when she had trouble with her reading in first grade, he worked with her every day on phonics and told her that she was teaching him to read English better. “The sun rises and sets on Livia,” said a friend.
The Past, Redefined
Parlak’s life began to unravel when he took the U.S. citizenship test in 1999. Applying for citizenship seemed like the natural thing to do. He said he felt that the United States was where he belonged. His friend Goldrick had been nudging him to become a full-fledged American. “I just thought this guy was the epitome of the immigrant coming to America and making good for himself,” Goldrick told me. “He needed to be a citizen.” So, on a July afternoon, Parlak drove the 100 miles to Grand Rapids to take his English language and history tests, both of which he passed easily. Afterward, he was interviewed by an I.N.S. worker, and she asked him about his involvement with the P.K.K. She explained that as of 1997, the State Department had listed the P.K.K. as a terrorist group. He testily told her he had detailed his affiliation in his asylum application eight years earlier. “Didn’t you just ask me about the meaning of Fourth of July?” he asked, referring to the U.S. history test he’d taken. “The Kurds fight for their freedom, and why do they have to be punished?” She told him that his citizenship application would be delayed. A month later, an I.N.S. representative sent a terse inquiry to Interpol, asking for any information it might have on Parlak.
For more than two years, Parlak awaited word on whether his application for naturalization had been approved. Then, in August 2001, his frustration mounting, he filed a lawsuit against the I.N.S.; his hope was to expedite the process. While awaiting word from the I.N.S., Parlak heard instead from the F.B.I., as the agency began taking a second look at old asylum and immigration cases after the Sept. 11 attacks. He would meet periodically with a local F.B.I. agent from nearby St. Joseph, and the two would have coffee together. Wanting to cooperate fully, Parlak handed out index cards to local law-enforcement officials with his work and home phone numbers on them.
By the end of 2001, Parlak received a formal denial of his naturalization request. Then, in April 2002, the I.N.S. filed charges against him for having lied on his green-card application 10 years earlier. He had answered no to two questions: one asked if he had ever been arrested for anything, the other inquired as to whether he had ever provided support to a terrorist organization. He says he misunderstood the questions because of his English, which was rudimentary then. In any event, he had previously disclosed his arrest and P.K.K. affiliation on his asylum application a year earlier.
While his immigration case dragged through the courts, Parlak received a call on July 29 of last year from the F.B.I. agent in St. Joseph, who invited him over to his office. Parlak thought it was to be a routine visit. Soon after he sat down to talk, though, two special D.H.S. agents, who were also seated in the room, rose from their chairs and handcuffed him. Parlak was told he was under arrest.
The D.H.S.(the I.N.S. had been subsumed by this new agency) charged Parlak with committing an aggravated felony after his admission to the U.S. This charge came out of an unusual turn of events. Shortly after Parlak had been released from a Turkish prison in 1990, the prosecution there appealed the sentence. The appeal sat unanswered in the court system until early last year, when the State Security Court in one of its last acts before it was disbanded (which was a condition for Turkey’s entry into the European Union) resentenced Parlak, in absentia, to six years. D.H.S., which says it didn’t know of Parlak’s involvement in the two soldiers’ deaths until 2002, argues that this resentencing means he was convicted of a felony while he was here, even though it was a crime for which he had already served time.
But the government soon ratcheted up the charges and accused Parlak of having engaged in terrorist activity in Turkey. It suddenly became a very different kind of case.
Terrorist activity as defined by Congress includes the “intent to endanger, directly or indirectly, the safety of one or more individuals” (other than for mere personal monetary gain), and the government argued that Parlak’s presence at the shooting of the two soldiers fell under this rubric. Parlak was also charged with providing material support to a terrorist organization, given his activities with the P.K.K.’s political arm. There have never been any allegations that Parlak is a threat to the security of this country, or that he has been involved with any kind of militant group since his arrival here. Rather, as legislators reshaped the definition of terrorism, first in 1990, then in 1996, and then again in 2001 — in the aftermath of 9/11 — Parlak’s activities in Turkey took on a more sinister coloring. What’s more, with each broadening of the definition by Congress, its application became retroactive.
What Is Terrorism?
There has long been disagreement about what constitutes a terrorist. Often the definition depends on the historical context. In one case in 1990, immigration authorities gave asylum to a member of the mujahedeen, a group that used terrorist tactics against the Soviets in Afghanistan. They said there was no lawful way for him to change the government. In 1997, a member of the Irish Republican Army who had served time for bombing police barracks received asylum; the immigration judge ruled that it was not a terrorist act but a political offense because of the conflict in Northern Ireland. In the late 80’s, the African National Congress was considered a terrorist group by the Department of Defense, while the State Department called it “a legitimate voice” in South African affairs. In the past, there has been disagreement over whether a state can be guilty of using terrorist tactics, and in 1984 a member of Savak, the shah of Iran’s notoriously brutal secret police, received political asylum.
The definition of terrorism in the U.S. has changed over time, as terrorism has itself changed. In the 1980’s, U.S. immigration law had no definition for terrorism (though it explicitly banned admission of members of the Palestine Liberation Organization). The State Department thought of it as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets … usually intended to influence an audience.” In 1990, for purposes of immigration matters, Congress came up with a definition that didn’t explicitly limit terrorism to attacks against civilians, and while the law didn’t take effect until after Parlak’s admission to the U.S., the government argues it applies retroactively to his case. Then in 1996, after the bombings of the World Trade Center and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City — acts that seemed designed to take as many lives as possible — the government made it a crime to provide any sort of material support, including food and housing, to a terrorist organization. Congress also directed the State Department to publish a list of organizations it deemed to be terrorist groups; it included the P.K.K. Finally, in the U.S. Patriot Act, Congress used broader language so that now a terrorist organization included any two or more individuals involved in what it deemed terrorist acts. It was also retroactive to past situations like Parlak’s.
“The problem now is that if you broaden it so much, you can pin the label on anyone you don’t like,” said Louise Richardson, a scholar of terrorist movements and now the executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “The P.K.K., while guilty of certain atrocities, were more in line with a guerrilla group insofar as they had a broad base of support in the Kurdish community. And the Kurdish community was so discriminated against.”
The P.K.K. nonetheless has been involved in some rather ugly and savage activity. It not only attacked the Turkish police and military but also went after civilians, including Turkish teachers in Kurdish communities, and even fellow Kurds — especially landlords and the village guards — who wouldn’t take a stand for a separate Kurdish state. The State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for the late 1980’s — the period when Parlak re-entered Turkey — chronicled various attacks on civilians by the P.K.K., including on women and children. While the State Department often referred to the P.K.K. as a terrorist organization, it also employed the terms “insurgency,” “guerrillas” and “separatist organization.” (In newspaper articles about the P.K.K. from that same period, they’re described as “Kurdish guerrillas,” “Kurdish insurgents” and “Kurdish separatists.”) This isn’t to suggest that the P.K.K. didn’t attack civilians, but rather that there was ambiguity about how we viewed a militant organization that appeared to have some legitimate complaints. Indeed, a State Department official told me that until the mid-1990’s, Turkey never felt that the U.S. condemned the P.K.K. strongly enough.
“There’s such a fuzzy line between civil war, insurgency and terrorism,” says Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution. “To be blunt about it, a lot of people use Justice Potter Stewart’s notion about pornography: I know it when I see it.”
Since 9/11, it has become a much less fluid term, and like the way we saw the Communist threat in anyone who opposed us during the cold war, we now see terrorism in any group that employs unconventional tactics of warfare. But most important, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have colored our view of history. “Today, we’re looking for terrorism everywhere,” Singer says. “It’s the lens through which we view the world. The bar has been lowered… . It’s going to shift the way we look at things in the past.”
It’s also instructive to revisit 1991, the year Parlak was admitted to the U.S., to understand the prism of that time. There was much going on in the world that made us more tolerant and ready to embrace someone with his background. Two years earlier the Berlin Wall fell, a grand symbolic moment signaling an openness and orderliness the world hadn’t experienced in a long while. And there was much worldwide sympathy for the Kurds. In the late 80’s, Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish villages and carried out mass executions, killing some 100,000. Then around the time of Parlak’s arrival, after the gulf war, roughly half a million Iraqi Kurds decamped for the safety of Turkey, but tens of thousands were stranded at the border. There was a world outcry first at Iraq, then at Turkey, for their treatment of the Kurds. Certainly, these events shaped the way we viewed someone like Parlak back in 1991.
Jailed and Confused
I visited Parlak this past October at the Calhoun County jail in Battle Creek, where there’s a wing set aside for immigrants awaiting possible deportation. He has been held without bond because of the terrorism allegations. We sat across from each other in a small, windowless, white-cinder-block room, and Parlak spent much of our time together leaning over the table, his attention fully on the moment, his eyes, as Lambach had suggested, “dancing.” They brighten when he laughs, but even then there’s a solemnity about them. (When he spoke of his torture in Turkey, he averted my gaze altogether.) We spent four hours together, but this was, it turns out, the last visit D.H.S. would allow reporters.
Parlak, who’s now 42, looked thin, his wiry shoulders apparent through his orange jail garb; he told me he had lost 10 pounds since his arrest. I asked how he was doing. “It’s not how I expected to spend my summer,” he said, forcing a smile.
He told me that shortly after he was arrested and taken here, he decided to request deportation rather than proceed with a hearing. He didn’t have any fight in him, he told me. He was too angry, too bewildered and too disoriented. Being incarcerated had revived memories of his time in Turkish prisons. “It’s just like watching old movies,” he told me. “You put your head on the pillow, and they come.” Then he heard what his friends were doing on his behalf, about the fund-raiser, about people stopping by the restaurant to donate money, about neighbors who hadn’t lost faith. And he thought of his daughter, Livia.
Lambach, the first American to befriend him, sent him 36 postcards, all scenes from Monet’s garden, because she knew he loved flowers. Goldrick visited Parlak in jail and got so choked up that he found it hard to have a conversation. Through the glass partition, Parlak told Goldrick he was having a hard time with the radical Muslims in the jail. He would argue with them about America, and they would deride him for not joining their gripe sessions about the country. (An Iraqi who was in the jail with Parlak told me that Parlak was a calming influence there, that many of the immigrants came to him for advice.) Two of his sisters — one of whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years — came to the U.S., one from Switzerland, the other from Germany. And every Monday night, 20 to 40 friends of Parlak’s gather at Cafe Gulistan for a potluck, and Parlak calls to speak with them.
When I saw him, he clearly seemed boosted if not emboldened by the support. “I’m not any less American than the judge,” he said. “I’m not any less American than the prosecutors. The America here is not the America I know.”
Parlak talked openly and in great detail about his time as a Kurdish separatist, about crossing the border, about being armed, about the firefight, about his six months hiding in the mountains. There wasn’t any effort to hide his place in the Kurdish movement. Regarding his arrest here, he seemed more perplexed than anything else. Periodically he would say to me: “Why? I’ve been asking myself that question over and over.”
Parlak had a pile of papers in front of him, many of them legal documents. On the top were a few pages of notes he had jotted for himself, some in English but much in Kurdish. He told me that he can’t sleep for more than two to three hours at a time, so he’ll often record what he can remember of the events 16 years ago. The hardest thing, though, was being away from his 7-year-old daughter, with whom he had had only one contact visit, but who comes to see him almost every Thursday morning at the jail. They talk through a glass partition. At one point, using toothpaste, he glued photographs of Livia to a sheet of cardboard, but the guards told him he had to take it down. “The only thing I could tell her,” he said, “is that I didn’t do anything wrong. That it’s a mistake. That we’ll fix it.”
A Defiant Hearing
On a gloomy, rainy Monday morning this past December, Parlak, whose hair had grayed considerably after four months in detention, was escorted by federal agents, one of them toting an automatic, into the building that houses Detroit’s immigration court. Parlak’s wrists were tethered to a manacle around his waist.
His friends, each of whom wore a sticker with a photograph of a red rose, waited for him outside the courtroom, and when he appeared, burst into applause. Livia wore a T-shirt that read: “Free My Dad.” People squeezed onto the nine wooden benches of the compact courtroom; two of the benches were filled with reporters from small newspapers that serve the area around Parlak’s hometown, as well reporters from The Chicago Tribune and “Nightline.” Goldrick spent the first day in a blue poncho with the words “Free Ibrahim” on the back, parading in front of the building, holding aloft his “Free Ibrahim” lawn sign.
The prosecutor was Mark Jebson, 37, a rapid-fire speaker with the straight-backed bearing of a marine. He has spent most of his career working for immigration, first for the I.N.S. and then for the D.H.S. By contrast, Parlak’s legal team was unusually large — seven in all; there was room for only three of them at the defense table, so the others crammed into the front bench. They included two attorneys from the Chicago office of a large corporate law firm that had agreed to take the case pro bono. (One of them, David Foster, was Gazzolo’s cousin, who had known Parlak for many years.) A D.H.S. official later commented to me, “That kind of goes against the perception of David going against Goliath.”
The attorney who spent the most time visiting Parlak in jail, and who would be the one to question him in court, was a demure, soft-spoken woman, Anne Buckleitner. Buckleitner, who is in private practice in Grand Rapids, first heard about Parlak’s case when she read a local newspaper article about his arrest and remembers thinking to herself, He was in trouble now for what he’d already opened up about? This can’t be right. There’s got to be more to this story.
From 1989 to 1999, Buckleitner worked for the F.B.I. at its Washington headquarters, the last five of them as an assistant general counsel specializing in counterintelligence and counterterrorism. (She and her law partner, John Smietanka, who also served in the U.S. attorney general’s office during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, have taken on Parlak’s case at a reduced fee.) Buckleitner remembers the debates she and her F.B.I. colleagues would have over what constitutes a terrorist organization, especially because they saw the emergence of radical Islamic fundamentalists who had no connection to a country or a discernible cause. Buckleitner wondered if the government might have reason to believe that Parlak posed a security threat, but she became satisfied — through her meetings with him and through her own investigation — that that wasn’t the case. “Government people often times lose a perspective of the power and the impact that their actions have,” she told me. “When you have shifting goal posts, I don’t know how Ibrahim could anticipate what would be important to the government.”
The hearing lasted two days, and it was Parlak’s testimony that occupied most of the time. Parlak, who had had little sleep, looked on edge. He wore an ill-fitting green suit and, because he hadn’t been given time to shave at the jail, had a day’s worth of growth. He appeared nervous, and often sat on his hands, his body leaning forward, as if he couldn’t decide how best to appear, deferential or assertive. One friend noticed that his English, usually quite good, was more halting and choppy than usual. His exchanges with Jebson, the prosecutor, were combative. Indeed, Parlak’s demeanor was at times defiant, which made his answers seem elusive. At one point, Jebson asked Parlak about the pseudonym he used while in Germany.
“Was that your code name?” Jebson asked.
“Could be,” Parlak replied. Jebson approached him.
“It is or it isn’t,” he demanded.
Toward the end of the hearing, Jebson asked Parlak if he still supported the P.K.K.
“As long as they stay with the Kurdish issue,” he said. “I want the Kurds to be free to speak their language, to experience the culture. If the P.K.K. encourages that, then we’re on the same page. I don’t agree with their military tactics. I agree with their ideals.” In subsequent conversations, Parlak has made it clear that his fire for Kurdish rights has not diminished.
Jebson contended that Parlak’s asylum application “was full of lies,” and in his conclusion argued that “if he had told the truth, we never would have granted him asylum.” During the two-day hearing, Jebson presented some material that Parlak had not disclosed when he entered the U.S., including the fact that right before crossing the border into Turkey he had a farewell meeting with the P.K.K. leader Ocalan, that he was the commander of the five men and that a grenade fell from his pack when he fled. The bulk of Jebson’s argument rested on the contention that Parlak had hidden his involvement in the deaths of the two soldiers. Parlak continues to maintain that he always believed the newspaper article had been fully translated.
For Jebson, it seemed clear: Parlak had a violent past. He had tried to re-enter Turkey carrying an AK-47, a pistol and a grenade, prepared to do battle. When Jebson asked why he was armed, Parlak replied: “Because I was in danger. The Turkish government considered me an enemy, and I considered them an enemy.” Jebson appeared irritated by the efforts of Parlak’s lawyers to make his activities seem benign. While they wanted to establish that Parlak was not part of the P.K.K.’s military arm, they sometimes soft-pedaled the evidence. At one point, they argued unconvincingly that the P.K.K. camp where Parlak spent time could also be considered a refugee camp for the elderly and children. Plain and simple, Parlak was armed and involved in illegal activity in Turkey. About that there seems no doubt.
Indeed, in the end, what’s most striking is not how far apart the two sides are, but how much they agree on. Jebson confirmed that assessment. “Mr. Parlak admitted almost everything I questioned him on,” he told me after the hearing. Parlak by his own admission had been associated with the P.K.K. He had told the asylum officer that he attended a P.K.K. camp in Lebanon, and that he was a member of the P.K.K.’s political arm. (The government does claim, though, that there was little distinction between the political and military wings of the organization.)
Parlak had spoken of crossing the border into Turkey illegally and in court acknowledged the death of the two Turkish soldiers. The government doesn’t dispute that Parlak himself didn’t shoot the soldiers. Parlak spoke of his torture, and of his ultimate conviction and prison sentence. None of that is in dispute. Rather, it seems, what is in question is how we view his activities now, through the prism of a post-9/11 world.
“Mr. Parlak,” Jebson said in his concluding remarks, “is literally the complete terrorist package… . There are many governments in this world that would claim Osama bin Laden as a freedom fighter. He’s not a freedom fighter. He’s a terrorist. Parlak is not a freedom fighter. He’s a terrorist.”
But is he? Was he? Parlak and his lawyers argue that he never committed any violent acts against civilians, that he was in fact convicted in Turkey not for being a terrorist but rather for his activities advocating an independent Kurdish state. They also argue that, to use their words, he has been “road tested,” that in his 14 years here he has shown himself to be an ideal citizen. Until changes in the immigration laws in 1996, if you’d been in this country for seven years, proved yourself to be of good moral character and had a family who depended on you, it was enough to avoid deportation. “I think the way he was treated speaks for itself,” Buckleitner said, referring to the asylum office. “They had comfort with what they knew and let him in.”
At his hearing, Parlak testified to his torture in a closed courtroom with only the attorneys and the D.H.S. guards present. It was, one of his lawyers said, a highly emotional session. Immediately afterward Parlak was allowed a break, and the plainclothes officer guarding him allowed him a visit with his daughter in a room off the hallway. He left the door open. At one point, Buckleitner passed by. She noticed Livia in her father’s lap and the guard sitting in a corner reading a newspaper. “Something about that scene, coming on the heels of that testimony, just overwhelmed me,” Buckleitner said. “The guard seemed real comfortable with him. I have to think that the guards were also affected by his deportment and his testimony.” Buckleitner told she me she got teary-eyed, and still can’t fathom why the government is so determined to prosecute this case. “Maybe,” she suggested, “it’s because they’ve been dealt so many blows on the criminal side, and so they’re just digging in their heels.”
It is the question that everyone familiar with this saga asks: Why? Is this a political payoff to Turkey, whose assistance in the Middle East we rely on? Unlikely. The State Department had no involvement in this case, and an officer at the Turkish Embassy told me that while Turkey was satisfied that the U.S. had gone after Parlak, Turkish authorities had not made a decision whether to even allow him back into Turkey. (Oddly enough, the U.S. government has in recent years tried to get Turkey to expand its offer of limited amnesty to P.K.K. members; since the 1999 capture of Ocalan, P.K.K. activities have diminished considerably.) Are there suspicions that Parlak might still be active in any kind of nefarious activity since his arrival here? There’s been no suggestion of that. It may be as simple as this: since 9/11, the government has clamped down on immigration cases (57 percent more people were deported last year than in the year 2000), and we now see threats where we didn’t before. From D.H.S.’s perspective, they’re simply following the letter of the law.
“There’s a lot of people on his side who really feel that he’s helpless victim of government oppression,” said Robin Baker, the director of detention and removal for a D.H.S. branch based in Detroit. “Frankly, if people wanted an individual who’s admitted to being a member of a terrorist organization and who’s been held responsible for the murders of two people to live in their neighborhood, then they should contact our elected representatives and ask them to change the law because all we’re doing is enforcing the law.”
Even if you presume, as the government does, that Parlak once engaged in terrorist activity, is he still a terrorist? I spoke with Henri Barkey, an expert on Turkey who served on the policy-planning staff at the U.S. State Department in the late 90’s. “If we’re going to brand a terrorist forever and go after them until the cows come home, we’ll never win this thing,” he said of the country’s war on terrorism. “If there’s no redemption, we’ll either have to jail them forever or kill them.”
After the hearing, in a phone conversation from jail, Parlak told me that a year and a half before his arrest, the F.B.I. approached him with a vague proposal to infiltrate the P.K.K. somewhere in the Middle East. Parlak declined the offer. When asked about this, the F.B.I. refused comment and asked that I speak to the D.H.S. A spokesman there said, “Nobody will disclose that a conversation materialized.” Privately, a D.H.S. official said that he had been told that the F.B.I. had pitched Parlak, though he didn’t know the details. What does it say that at one point one arm of the U.S. government felt confident enough in Parlak’s integrity to think that he could re-enter the Kurdish separatist movement and turn over valuable information? It’s further evidence, I suppose, that we see what we want to see.
The Court Rules
On Dec. 29, Elizabeth A. Hacker, a U.S. immigration judge, issued a scathing 59-page decision, ordering Parlak deported to Turkey. She wrote that she didn’t find Parlak credible because of “his evasive demeanor” at the hearing. She agreed with the prosecution on virtually every point. She wrote that Parlak’s “actions as a restaurateur, father and resident of Harbert are not the subject of this hearing.” She continued: he “is accountable for the actions he took prior to entry into the United States and the actions in obtaining his status under the immigration laws before this Court.” Parlak’s attorneys are appealing, first to the Board of Immigration Appeals, and then if necessary to the federal courts.
Meanwhile, Parlak worries that if sent back to Turkey he would be a target of the authorities and of the P.K.K., which he says he believes views him as a traitor to their cause. (Despite his new sentence, he doesn’t have to serve any more prison time because he has already fulfilled one-fifth of it, which was all that was required by the Turkish court.) If Turkey — which long ago revoked Parlak’s citizenship — refuses him entry, then it’s unclear what will happen. It’s highly unusual for a deportee to be sent to a third country. Theoretically, he could be detained indefinitely, if it was believed he posed a danger to the community. Otherwise, he could be temporarily released under supervision. A D.H.S. spokesman told me, “Ibrahim Parlak will never walk these streets again.”
Shortly after the decision, I spoke with Parlak’s neighbors. I thought that given the forcefulness of the judge’s decision, some of them might now think differently about their friend. Goldrick conceded to me that he had been worried that maybe the government had something on Parlak that would suggest he was engaged in villainous activity here. “I thought, I’ll kill you if you haven’t been honest with us,” he told me. But in the end it was as he had known it to be. “You better go and round up all those people who fought the apartheid government in South Africa,” he told me, sounding even more agitated than when I’d spoken to him a couple of months earlier. He’s in Florida for the winter, and told me that when he returns to Michigan, he intends to continue lobbying his local politicians.
David Duis, the local police officer who testified at an earlier hearing, told me that he plans to visit Parlak in jail. “There’s a big difference between law and justice,” he said. “The law says some things can be done, and justice is what’s the right thing to do. I think in this situation, the law may say we can deport him, but I don’t think it’s justice.”