Man served his time, now U.S. wants him to return to Iraq

14.jpgLouis Akrawi, 64, an Iraq native, was freed last week on parole. / Michigan OTIS
Convicted of murder and once labeled a godfather of organized crime in Detroit, Louis Akrawi has done his time — 15 years in state prison.

Akrawi, 64, was freed last week on parole. But he may not be in Michigan for long.

Although he has been a U.S. resident since 1968, Akrawi never became a citizen and is now facing deportation to his native Iraq, a strife-torn nation where he fears for his life.

“If I told you otherwise, I’d be lying,” Akrawi said in an interview earlier this month.

Leaders of the local Chaldean community say that in Muslim-dominated Iraq, Chaldeans such as Akrawi are a small Christian minority who are being viciously persecuted.

For now, Iraq is balking at the efforts of U.S. authorities to deport Akrawi, but not because of his criminal record. The Iraqi Consulate General for Detroit has declined to issue travel papers for Akrawi because he claims to have no documentation of his Iraqi origins.

The federal government has wide latitude to deport immigrants who commit crimes, and those deemed dangerous top the send-away list for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

People who don’t know Akrawi but fight for Chaldeans facing deportation to Iraq say such situations embody a tough debate over American values: Should criminals who have paid their debt here be exposed to additional punishment, possibly even death, elsewhere? Or should people once considered dangerous be freed in Michigan? In the last five years, the Michigan Department of Corrections says it paroled more than 1,000 prisoners who, like Akrawi, were convicted of second-degree murder.

For Detroit Police Lt. Charles Flanagan, who helped put Akrawi in prison, there is no debate. He wants him gone.

“Without a doubt, he’s a dangerous guy,” Flanagan said Friday.

Professor David Koelsch, a lawyer who runs the immigration law clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy, said deporting people such as Akrawi would be much simpler if the situation for Chaldeans hadn’t worsened in Iraq since the U.S. toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

“There’s a genocide going on there right now,” Koelsch said. “I personally have very mixed emotions about this.”

In recent years, Chaldean neighborhoods in Iraq have been bombed, and Christians, including some priests, have been executed, according to news reports. The BBC said at least 52 people died and dozens more were wounded when gunmen besieged a Catholic church in Baghdad in 2010.

Koelsch recounted the story of a 27-year-old Chaldean man who was deported from Michigan in 2010 and left in Baghdad, where his family was afraid to pick him up for fear of being seen associating. Eventually, relatives spirited the man into Turkey and then Canada, which gave him refugee status.

Barring that escape, “he would have been a prisoner in his family’s home in Iraq or he would have been likely killed or kidnapped,” Koelsch said.

Joseph Kassab, who heads the Chaldean Federation of America in Southfield, said: “It doesn’t make sense to send an Iraqi Christian back home for a crime they have paid for already.”

Victor Akrawi, one of Louis Akrawi’s sons, pleaded in a recent interview for his father to stay in the U.S.

“I just want him to be treated like everyone else,” Victor Akrawi said over coffee at a McDonald’s in Sterling Heights. “He’s an old man. He wants to come home.”

Louis Akrawi was fairly well-known around Detroit in the 1990s — as a brash, barrel-chested defender of his family honor, or the murderous boss of a Chaldean crime syndicate, depending on who was describing him.

He ran L.A. Ribs on 8 Mile and before that, a restaurant in West Bloomfield called Ribbies.

In 1989, Akrawi obtained local notoriety after his nephew, Harry Kalasho, was assassinated amid a drug war in the area of John R and 7 Mile in Detroit. Akrawi became the family spokesman and a public critic of federal law enforcement agencies.

Akrawi said agents had labeled his nephew a drug kingpin though he had never been charged with any crime (Kalasho’s lieutenants, years after his death, were charged and convicted in drug conspiracy cases).

Akrawi beat a drug conspiracy charge in Oakland County in 1991. Afterward, his defense attorney, James Howarth, praised the fairness of the U.S. justice system, even for immigrants.

Two years later, gunmen burst into a Detroit party store, spraying bullets that killed Michael Cogborn, 34, of Detroit, who was a customer. Akrawi wasn’t the trigger man, but prosecutors proved to a jury that Akrawi ordered the attack to get a drug rival.

Accounts of the trial described it as a circus, with witnesses recanting, charges of police coercion and then-Sgt. Flanagan jailed briefly for contempt until the state Court of Appeals overruled the trial judge. Flanagan had investigated Akrawi for years and pledged publicly to put him away.

Akrawi, in turn, freely spoke to the news media during his trial, proclaiming his innocence and contending he was being framed. Akrawi taunted law enforcement authorities and said Flanagan was obsessed with him and motivated by racism, a charge Flanagan denied.

A jury found Akrawi guilty of second-degree murder, reduced by the judge from first-degree murder. Akrawi was ordered to state prison for up to 27 years. He has served his minimum sentence.

“He got a slap on the wrist as far as I’m concerned,” Flanagan said. “And the guy he had killed, their family still suffers the painful loss of their loved one while this guy walks free. So I say send him back to Iraq.”

Akrawi was paroled from state prison in November, but was held until Thursday in the Calhoun County Jail while the U.S. tried to deport him.

In the recent telephone interview from jail, he was defiant, steadfast that the government is punishing him for publicly demonstrating against U.S. policy in the Middle East. He said he just wants to live peacefully back in the Detroit area, maybe starting another restaurant.

“I’ve been here 44 years. I have five sons in the United States. I have no family in Iraq. No friend,” Akrawi said. “I’ve been in the prison all this time. If they send me right now, who’s going to support me?”

Immigration authorities released Akrawi because of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that prevented holding him for more than 180 days.

For now, Akrawi holds out hope of settling back into Michigan, even as he considers whether he could make it in Baghdad.

“At my age? I don’t know. I really don’t know,” Akrawi said. But ever outspoken, he added, “Because of my mouth … I wouldn’t last a week.”

On Friday, after a day of freedom, Akrawi said he was just happy to be spending time with his grandchildren. And he said he spoke with his parole officer about following the rules while he’s free.

“That’s what I’m going to do,” he said. “That’s what I told her — she’ll have the easiest guy she ever had.”