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Rape suspect extradited without sanctuary city exception

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Rape suspect Mohamed Ben Azaza is set to be arraigned at the San Francisco Hall of Justice on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

It turns out San Francisco didn’t have to approve legislation Tuesday that critics said would have eroded protections under sanctuary city laws in order to have an alleged rape suspect extradited.

The suspect, Mohamed Ben Azaza, 39, was booked into San Francisco County Jail at 12:43 a.m. Monday, a day before the Board of Supervisors was set to vote on the proposal, having been extradited from Montreal, Canada, on a no-bail arrest warrant.

Ben Azaza, a foreign national from Tunisia, is in jail on four felony counts of rape, including rape of an unconscious person. He is accused of raping an unconscious female passenger he picked up when working as a ride-hail driver in Daly City in October 2017 after driving her to San Francisco.

He is scheduled for arraignment in San Francisco Superior Court Wednesday.

The Department of Homeland Security had made unusual demands in return for assisting with Ben Azaza’s extradition, including that District Attorney George Gascon and the Sheriff’s Department notify federal immigration enforcement if Azaza posted bail or was acquitted. Doing so would have violated The City’s sanctuary laws, which limit cooperation between local agencies and federal immigration enforcement. The legislation would have made an exception in the sanctuary laws in this case only.

However, a spokesperson for the District Attorney’s Office said that the federal agency “changed their mind.”

That meant that the board did not have to vote on the legislation that sanctuary city supporters argued would set a bad precedent and represent a step backwards for The City’s resistance against the anti-immigrant politics of President Donald Trump, who has attacked sanctuary city policies. Some board members were willing to do so, however.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who voted for the proposal at the board’s Rules Committee last week, said Tuesday that “this has been quite a frustrating experience dealing with this ordinance and the antics of the Trump Administration.”

Ronen said this was the first time these conditions were ever put on an extradition request and that the “Trump administration has been playing games with this particular case.” She said it wasn’t clear why the conditions were asked for and then later dropped.

A District Attorney’s Office Jan. 7 memo said that Ben Azaza’s release date from Canadian custody was Jan. 28, if he wasn’t extradited. They were holding him since last year when he fled to avoid being questioned by police, authorities said. He turned up in Canada when he reported items stolen to a Montreal police station and law enforcement there arrested him after discovering he was wanted in San Francisco, authorities said.

Ronen vowed never to support such a proposal again and the board voted to table the proposal since it was no longer needed. “I will refuse to ever participate or even to consider a resolution like this again,” Ronen said. “This is just games and I will have nothing of it.”

Former Supervisor John Avalos, who updated San Francisco’s sanctuary laws in 2016, said “I don’t know what happened, but I’m glad the city was able to avoid a no-win pickle.”

Avalos, who is now an organizer with the National Union of Healthcare Workers, said that “the extradition ordinance would have suspended our local laws and got our city to deny the presumption of innocence and right to due process for a single individual. Other cities and other exceptions would likely follow.”

Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer said, “I felt like we were being baited.” She said that it was important not to “chip away at our sanctuary city law.”

DHS declined to comment Tuesday.

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