Va. man charged with lying about human-rights abuses to get citizenship

WASHINGTON — An Alexandria, Virginia, man was arrested Friday and charged with having fraudulently gotten U.S. citizenship by lying about having committed human rights abuses decades ago in his native Ethiopia.

Mergia Negussie Habteyes, 58, has been accused of being a civilian interrogator in Ethiopia’s Higher 3 prison in the late 1970s, a time known as the Red Terror. During that period, he “participated in the persecution, through brutality, of individuals imprisoned because of their political opinion,” the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia said in a statement Friday.

He lied about this when applying for refugee status, for permanent residence and for citizenship, the prosecutors said, telling immigration officials that he had never participated in a crime for which he hadn’t been arrested, and that he’d never lied to get an immigration benefit.

“The persecution of individuals for their political opinion and expression violates one of our most basic and foundational tenets as a nation,” Special Agent Patrick J. Lechleitner, of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in the statement. “We will not allow human rights violators to use lies, fraud and deceit to exploit our laws.”

Habteyes is charged with unlawful procurement of naturalization. The maximum penalty is 10 years in prison and revocation of his citizenship, as well as likely removal to Ethiopia, the prosecutors said.

His first court appearance is set for Friday at 2 p.m.

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