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What does an Egyptian arrest warrant mean for alleged anti-Muslim filmmaker?

LA County Sheriff deputies escort Nakoula Basseley Nakoula from his Cerritos home shortly after midnight Saturday morning.
LA County Sheriff deputies escort Nakoula Basseley Nakoula from his Cerritos home shortly after midnight Saturday morning.
Edwin Calderon/NBC LA

Now that Egyptian officials have issued an arrest warrant for Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the alleged filmmaker behind the inflammatory anti-Muslim film "Innocence of Muslims" that's been blamed for deadly violence in the Middle East, this evolving story warrants a closer look at what the rules are.

Nakoula and the seven others named (who include the controversial Florida pastor Terry Jones) are accused of "harming national unity, insulting and publicly attacking Islam and spreading false information," according to a piece in the Los Angeles Times. News stories have reported that Nakoula, a Cerritos, Calif. resident described in reports as "a naturalized U.S. citizen of Egyptian descent and a Coptic Christian," could face the death penalty in Egypt. But that is, of course, if he ever lands in Egypt, which seems unlikely.

First, if Nakoula is indeed a naturalized citizen (immigration authorities won't confirm, but then a 2010 guilty plea for bank fraud didn't get him deported), there is very little than could cause him to become deportable.

But there are a few things. If the federal government investigates a naturalized citizen's status and determines that this citizenship - or prior to it, the person's legal resident status - was obtained by fraud, or the person lied about criminal activity or made other false statements when applying for naturalization, U.S. citizenship can be taken away. It would make that person's status revert back to what it was before, i.e. make them deportable. A conviction for treason or "membership in certain organizations," such as a terrorist group, can also get a citizen booted.

There is also extradition, but this is complicated and doesn't happen every day. U.S. citizens can be extradited, but it depends on whether there is an extradition treaty between the U.S. and the foreign country involved, what its rules are, and many other factors. The more typical scenario is, say, an American citizen committing a crime while in a foreign country, like in the cases of Ernest Childs and Cruz Edward Dominguez, two Americans extradited to Mexico last year for homicides committed there. 

But this is quite different from the charges in the warrant issued for Nakoula, where he is accused of offenses that were not committed in Egypt.

The warrant is more symbolic than anything else. But is it at all plausible that either of the above situations could apply? Patricia Corrales, a former senior attorney with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who specialized in the revocation of citizenship, said it would not be surprising to see officials investigating Nakoula's immigration record.

The mocking anti-Muslim video, which was posted to YouTube, has been blamed for contributing to the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans during an attack in Libya, along with a rash of violent protests in Egypt, Libya and other Middle East nations. That Nakoula has a criminal record for fraud doesn't help his cause, she said.

"As a former prosecutor, I would argue that maybe that is akin to treason," Corrales said by phone. "I don't know if you can make that leap, but because of your actions, you have put all these Americans at risk. (The government would) have every reason to investigate his background to see how he obtained his permanent status in the first place, and how be obtained his naturalization." 

Nakoula's criminal record is being investigated, including whether he violated the terms of his probation. Among other things, Nakoula's probation following a 21-month prison sentence barred him from using a false name; the film was being promoted by a "Sam Bacile," a name that authorities have tied to Nakoula.