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Egypt arrests former Ackerman intern on espionage charges

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U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside) said Tuesday he had been in contact with all possible parties concerning his former intern, Ilan Grapel, who was arrested late last week in Egypt on charges of being an Israeli spy.

“I have been assured from the highest levels in Israel... this kid had nothing to do with espionage,” Ackerman said during a conference call with reporters. “It’s an unfortunate mistake we’re trying to straighten out.”

Grapel, who has was born in the United States and has dual citizenship with Israel, left for Egypt in May to take part in a refugee resettlement program through Emory University in Georgia, where he is third-year law student scheduled to graduate next May. The congressman said the Bronx High School of Science graduate was working with a non-government organization to help resettle refugees from Iraq and Sudan. “Not to be part of a revolution,” he reiterated.

Grapel lives in Oakland Gardens.

A university statement on the matter praised Grapel as an active member of the Emory Law community, citing his nomination for an outstanding student worker award and several volunteer activities. He had received degrees in economics and international relations from Johns Hopkins University and later joined the Israeli army, where he was wounded in 2006 during the war in Lebanon, Ackerman said.

According to the congressman, Grapel was using his own name while wearing his Israeli army uniform and posting pictures of himself to his Facebook account when he was arrested and detained for a period of 15 days. The New York Post said Grapel is 27.

“I guess that’s what you do when you’re in college,” Ackerman said with a slight laugh. “That’s not what a spy does. He may have been too cute by half by exhibiting a liberal sense of humor.” Ackerman did say he had been told by Egyptian officials that Grapel was asking questions and claiming to be a journalist for a foreign country.

Ackerman is the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.

“It’s important that he’s not used as a tool or pawn in a game of trying to shift the focus on what’s going on in the region,” Ackerman said.

The congressman said he and his staff had been trying to straighten out the situation since they were contacted by Grapel’s parents, which is just the type of work his former intern would have done back in the summer of 2002.

Without going into specifics, the congressman said he had “a lot of friends over there” and was working with the Egyptian embassy and with the ambassador personally. “I’ve agreed to make my case in person if that would be helpful,” he said.

Grapel gets his Israeli heritage from his father, a podiatrist with a practice in Bayside. A call to his office said the family did not wish to make a comment.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 10:52 am, October 12, 2011
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