Preliminary hearings in the deportation trial of Mahmoud Bazzi, 71, begin today in Detroit.
Bazzi, originally from Lebanon, is accused of entering the US illegally 21 years ago using a stolen passport.
Separately, he is alleged to be the killer of two Irish UN soldiers, Pvt. Thomas Barrett and Pvt. Derek Smallhorne, who were abducted, tortured and shot dead 34 years ago while stationed in Lebanon with UN peacekeeping forces. A third Irish soldier, John O’Mahony, was also abducted and fired upon by a man he identifies as Bazzi.
A former militiaman with the Israeli-backed Christian South Lebanon Army (SLA), Bazzi was taken in to custody by Homeland Security officers at his Dearborn, MI home on the morning of July 15.
He is being held on an immigration violation – using another person’s passport to enter the US – but a spokesman for the Detroit office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told Jim Schaefer of the Detroit Free Press that “the allegations of what happened in Lebanon factor heavily in our investigation and our efforts to remove him.”
Ireland’s Minister for Defence, Simon Coveney, is said to be closely monitoring the case, and the Irish Times reports that Eamon Saunders, Justice and Home Affairs Counsellor at the Irish Embassy in Washington, will attend today’s hearing as an observer for the Irish government.
The killings took place on April 18, 1980 near the Lebanese-Israeli border. Barrett (30) and Smallhorne (31) had been stationed with the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon and were a week away from being sent home to Ireland – to Counties Cork and Dublin, respectively – where they both had wives and young children waiting for them.
At the time there was an active death threat in the area for Irish UN soldiers, in revenge for the loss of an SLA fighter in a clash between UNIFIL soldiers and the SLA two weeks earlier.
Along with O’Mahony, Barrett and Smallhorne were assigned to drive a convoy replacing supplies at UN posts along the border. En route, the seven-person convoy (which also included two senior UN officers and two members of the Associated Press) was abducted and taken to an abandoned school house. The Irish soldiers were separated from the rest of the convoy, and the leader of their captors – a man who both O’Mahony and the former AP journalist present, Steve Hindy, say kept talking about the death of his brother – opened fire, hitting O’Mahony in the leg and torso.
Smallhorne and Barrett ran outside, where they were apprehended and driven away by the man who had been talking about his brother. The rest of the convoy was let go, and O'Mahony was airlifted to a hospital. Smallhorne and Barrett were found later that day; they had been tortured and executed. A week or so later, a man named Mahmoud Bazzi, recognizable as the leader of the captors, appeared on Lebanese TV taking credit for the killings.
The families, friends and fellow comrades of Barrett, Smallhorne and O’Mahony have been campaigning for justice since 1980. Within the last year, they formally organized as a group called “Justice for Barrett and Smallhorne,” which has staged a number of peaceful protest, most recently on July 5 when close to 800 veterans of the UN forces from Ireland and all across Europe gathered outside the US Embassy in Dublin.
A documentary produced by RTE in 2000 for the 20th anniversary of the enclave killings, as they became to be known, tracked down Bazzi to Detroit, where he had already been settled for a few years and was making a living driving an ice cream truck. In an interview, he admitted to being present for the abductions but denied harming the Irish soldiers.
Shortly after the documentary aired, O’Mahony and the AP journalist Steve Hindy (who went on to found Brooklyn Brewery) were separately approached by agents from the federal government and questioned about Bazzi. In the 14 years since then, they have often wondered why nothing ever came of those meetings, until last year when each was again approached and asked about Bazzi, who had applied for US citizenship.
Determined to not let the story fade away again, Hindy wrote a personal account of the case for Vice Magazine, and Robbie Masterson, spokesman of Justice for Barrett and Smallhorne, contacted IrishCentral and a number of other US-based publications.
A few weeks prior to Bazzi’s arrest on July 15, Jim Schaefer of the Detroit Free Press connected with him and conducted an interview via a neighbor and one of Bazzi’s daughters, who interpreted. According to Schaefer, Bazzi says he came to the US 21 years ago using someone else’s passport but has since held a valid green card. He has a wife and three daughters who are US citizens, and one daughter told Schaefer that Bazzi has 23 other children living in the Middle East.
Bazzi told Schaefer that he has been questioned about the killings by American officials a number of times over the years and still claims that he is innocent. He said that it was his youngest brother, Massoud, who died in the 1980 clash with UNIFIL, and that he had been a few days away from getting married.
"I would say to the family [of the Irish soldiers] that I am innocent from this story. ... I had nothing to do with that. ... I feel sorry that these youth are gone, and my brother is gone," he said, wondering why there hadn’t been an investigation into his brother’s death.
However, he still maintains that the SLA forced him to appear on television saying he had killed the Irish soldiers to avenge his brother’s death. "They said you have to come to the TV, and say that you took it out as revenge for your brother," he explained to Schaefer. "They threatened me. If I don't say this, they will kill me."
Because Lebanon is his home country, it is likely where Bazzi will be sent if deported. However, he also told Schaefer that, having sided with Israel 34 years ago, he would not be safe in Lebanon and would rather die than return.
"I'm here in America. And America is responsible for me," he said. "Lebanon is not responsible for me. Nor is any other country responsible for me. I am under the American flag here."
The families and friends of Barrett and Smallhorne want Bazzi to be deported back to Lebanon, where they hope he may be able to stand trial for war crimes. John O’Mahony, now 62 and living on a farm in Scartaglin, Co. Kerry, told IrishCentral in a previous interview that he agrees.
“I would like to see him be brought to some form of justice. At the very least, that he be deported back to Lebanon, that he not be allowed citizenship in America,” he said.