US citizen stuck in Kuwait can now leave country

June 6, 2011 - 1:27 PM

McLEAN, Va. (AP) — A naturalized U.S. citizen stuck in Kuwait for months said Monday that he will finally be able to leave the country after the U.S. Embassy reversed course and returned his confiscated passport.

Aziz Nouhaili, 47, had been unable to leave since February, when Nouhaili took the passport to the embassy for a routine request to have pages added to the booklet, which was full. But embassy officials confiscated the passport, told him he should no longer think of himself as a citizen and that his naturalization may be revoked.

The situation apparently stemmed from a decades-old passport problem Nouhaili had before becoming a citizen.

Last week, Nouhaili's lawyer at the Council on American-Islamic Relations wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requesting the passport's return and accusing embassy bureaucrats of abusing Nouhaili's fundamental rights as a citizen. An Associated Press article about Nouhaili's situation generated stories across the world, including the front page of the Arab Times, a widely read English-language paper in Kuwait.

Three days later, Nouhaili received an email informing him he could pick up his passport. No explanation was offered for the delay.

Nouhaili picked up the document Monday and made immediate plans to join his wife and daughter in Tunisia, where they were staying with family.

"I am very relieved," Nouhaili said Monday in a telephone interview after retrieving his passport. He was overwhelmed, he said, by the support he received from people who read his story. "I had people who were saying prayers for me from six different religions."

Nouhaili, who became a U.S. citizen in 1999 and previously lived in New York and Eugene, Ore., had worked for several years in Kuwait as a government contractor. When the contract ended, he planned to return to the U.S. and start a new job in Las Vegas.

The delays cost him that job in Nevada, but he still plans to return to the U.S. and find work, Nouhaili said.

Nouhaili admitted that he provided false information to try and obtain a passport more than 20 years ago. But he cooperated with an investigation and was never charged. Nouhaili and his lawyer argued that if U.S. officials felt they had reason to revoke Nouhaili's citizenship, they should initiate proceedings in a federal court and allow Nouhaili to return to the U.S. so he could receive his due process rights and defend himself.

Nouhaili said Monday he is not concerned about losing his citizenship and is confident that the old passport problem will not create any significant legal issues for him.

Gadeir Abbas, Nouhaili's lawyer, said he is happy the government did the right thing in returning Nouhaili's passport, but said Nouhaili's case is one among many where government officials erected bureaucratic obstacles for American Muslims that are removed only when exposed to publicity.

"These are not isolated cases," Abbas said. "Aziz reached out to us, but we know there are other people in his situation who are not reaching out."

An official at the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs did not immediately comment Monday. The bureau had previously declined to comment, citing privacy concerns.