Feds demand exception to sanctuary laws in return for extradition of rideshare rape suspect

San Francisco officials are considering an unusual exception to The City’s sanctuary law in return for the extradition of a rideshare driver who fled the country after allegedly raping a passenger.

Mohamed Ben Azaza, 39, picked up a female passenger in Daly City on Oct. 21, 2017 and allegedly raped her while she was unconscious after driving her to San Francisco, according to authorities with knowledge of the case and a felony arrest warrant obtained by San Francisco police.

The incident was reported by the victim the next day.

Authorities confirmed that Ben Azaza was driving for a rideshare company at the time of the incident. When the alleged crime was reported to Uber in October 2017, the company removed his access to the app. He had gone through the required background screening to become a driver, Uber said. He also drove for Lyft for a short while but not at the time of the alleged incident.

Ben Azaza is facing two felony rape charges, according to the warrant.

After police sought him out for questioning, he fled the country, authorities said. Then, last June, Ben Azaza flew into Montreal, Canada, from Tunisia, the North African country where he was born.

He was arrested after he discovered he was missing personal items including his wallet and passport and went to a Montreal police station to report the theft. There, they processed his information and discovered he was wanted by San Francisco authorities. He has been held by the Canadian Ministry of Justice ever since.

But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will not extradite Ben Azaza unless San Francisco officials agree to certain provisions that run afoul of The City’s sanctuary law.

That is why the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee is being asked by District Attorney George Gascon to approve legislation Wednesday that would grant an exception to its sanctuary law in this case.

When Gascon requested DHS approve Ben Azaza’s parole entry into the United States for transport to San Francisco for criminal prosecution, DHS “informed the District Attorney that it will not approve parole entry for the defendant unless the District Attorney and the Sheriff agree to notify DHS immediately if the defendant posts bail or is otherwise to be released from custody either before or after the conclusion of the criminal proceeding,” according to the legislation.

Ben Azaza does not have a legal right to be in the United States, authorities said. It is unclear if Ben Azaza was in the country legally at the time of the alleged crime.

These types of notifications are currently not allowed under San Francisco’s sanctuary law. Chapters 12H and 12I of the Administrative Code prohibits The City from using any funding or resources to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration, including notification of when someone may be released from custody. There are some existing exceptions that would allow The City to comply with a DHS notification request, such as if a person was convicted of a violent felony in the past seven years and a judge rules there is probable cause they are guilty of a felony.

The legislation would allow for a sanctuary law exception in Ben Azaza’s case for the type of notification requested by DHS in order for The City to finalize the parole entry agreement between the District Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department and the federal agency. The agreement would become public once finalized.

“If the defendant is paroled to the United States, he will be housed in the San Francisco County Jail in the custody of the Sheriff, and the District Attorney will prosecute the criminal charges against him,” the legislation says.

The conditions for extradition come as President Donald Trump and his administration have unsuccessfully sought to roll back sanctuary polices in San Francisco and other cities, which restrict local authorities from cooperating with federal immigration enforcement. Supporters say by reducing the fear of deportation, sanctuary policies make those in immigrant communities more likely to report crimes, send their children to school and access other city services, creating a safer environment for everyone. Trump has argued these polices make cities less safe.

If approved by the committee, the full board would vote on the legislation next week.

SEE RELATED: Prosecutors: Rideshare Rapist preyed on ‘helpless’ women outside SF bars

Ben Azaza is not the first rideshare driver to be accused of raping passengers. In July of 2018 San Francisco police arrested San Mateo resident Orlando Vilchez Lazo, 37, who is alleged to have raped four women between 2013 and 2018 after he picked them up outside of city bars.

Joshua Sabatini
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Joshua Sabatini

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