Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

Accused Liberian man being held on immigration charges

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Mahamu Drisa Kanneh — a Liberian immigrant against whom rape and other child sex abuse charges were dismissed because of trial delays — is being held in Montgomery County’s Seven Locks Detention Center in Rockville while Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials review his immigration status.

‘‘The detainer ensures that he will come into our custody” pending an examination of immigration issues, ICE spokeswoman Ernestine Fobbs said.

Citing privacy laws and security concerns, Fobbs declined to specify what those ‘‘issues” are and where Kanneh, 23, who has lived in Gaithersburg and Rockville, would be detained.

U.S. marshals and police apprehended Kanneh, who claims to be a refugee, in Philadelphia on Aug. 6 after he failed to appear for an Aug. 3 bond hearing in Montgomery County.

The bond hearing was set to decide whether Kanneh would go free while county prosecutors appeal the July 17 dismissal of charges against Kanneh.

On Monday, Circuit Court Judge Ann S. Harrington released Kanneh on his own recognizance, noting that there are no criminal charges against him now.

But she required Kanneh to surrender his travel documents, have no contact with the two girls he is accused of abusing, have no unsupervised contact with children and get permission before leaving Maryland, Washington or Virginia.

The 2004 charges against Kanneh were dismissed after three years of delays and his claim that he needed an interpreter who spoke Vai, a language from northwestern Liberia and Sierra Leone, to understand the legal proceedings.

Vai translators were on hand for various hearings in the case between 2004 and 2007, but one withdrew and another was dismissed.

The argument that Kanneh needed a translator sparked objections, not only from prosecutors, but from some Liberian immigrants who say the language barrier claim is invalid and a ploy to beat the legal system.

Prosecutors argued that Kanneh spoke English and attended high school and community college in Montgomery County.

English is the official language of Liberia, a West African nation whose inhabitants include descendants of slaves resettled from the United States. But about 16 indigenous languages are also spoken there.

Conflicts have disrupted many institutions, including education in Liberia, but immigrants say English, albeit sometimes broken, is spoken even in villages.