In a closely watched case with implications for U.S. diplomacy, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia yesterday blocked Bush administration efforts to deport an Egyptian Christian seeking asylum, who fears torture in prison if returned to Egypt where he was convicted in absentia for a murder he denies.

Sameh Khouzam flew to the United States in 1998. Before his plane landed, Egyptian authorities notified U.S. officials that he was wanted for a murder committed in Cairo earlier that night.

Khouzam was taken into custody and petitioned for asylum alleging religious persecution in predominantly Muslim Egypt. He has been in an out of detention fighting the case since his arrival.

The U.S. government based its decision to remove Khouzam on "diplomatic assurances" from Egypt to the U.S. State Department that Egypt would not torture Khouzam if he was sent back.

But the three-judge panel, in a unanimous decision written by Judge Marjorie Rendell, ruled Khouzam was denied meaningful opportunities to see the written assurances, test their reliability or offer counter evidence.

The Justice Department had argued that the assurances were a foreign-policy matter beyond judicial review.

By the appeals court rejected that argument.

"It is an error to suppose that every case or controversy which touches foreign relations lies beyond judicial cognizance," Rendell wrote.

"In view of the complete absence of any process by which Khouzam could have challenged the Government's . . . decision," Rendell wrote, "we find it obvious that Khouzam was substantially prejudiced. . . .

"Beyond the Government's bare assertions, we find no record supporting the reliability of the diplomatic assurances."

Amrit Singh, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney for Khouzam, called the ruling "a stinging rejection" of the government's argument. A Justice Department spokesman said the decision was under review.

The judges remanded the case to the Board of Immigration Appeals, where the decade-long battle is expected to resume.

Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541, or mmatza@phillynews.com