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    Al-Najjar finds a home abroad

    An unidentified country will accept the former USF professor after he gains travel documents from the Palestinian Authority.

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 19, 2002


    photo
    Mazen Al-Najjar
    Mazen Al-Najjar, a longtime Tampa resident jailed on secret evidence but never charged with a crime, will be released this week and taken to a country in the Middle East that has agreed to let him live there, his lawyer said Sunday.

    Al-Najjar spent more than four years behind bars in the United States on evidence the government said linked him to terrorism. When a judge ordered his freedom last year, the government re-arrested him at his Tampa home and put him in jail for overstaying his student visa.

    His case became an international cause for civil libertarians and sparked a bill in Congress to ban the use of secret evidence in immigration cases.

    No country would take the former University of South Florida professor until Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority agreed last week to grant him documents needed to travel, something it had resisted doing for months.

    The decision is a mixed blessing, said his attorney, Joe Hohenstein of Philadelphia.

    "He wants to to be able to stay and raise his family (in the United States)," Hohenstein said. "But at the same time, he wants to be able to live in freedom."

    Family members refused to identify where Al-Najjar will move except to say it is an Arab country with friendly relations with the United States where he knows people. They fear publicity about the move will cause the country to renege on its promise, something Guyana did in 1998 after it appeared Al-Najjar was headed there. Hohenstein said the country that accepted Al-Najjar was one of the eight that declined to take him without proper travel documents. Those countries were Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, South Africa, Guyana, Egypt, Lebanon and Bahrain.

    "For the past two years we have been working nonstop to get him a travel document and a visa," said his father, Abelkarim Al-Najjar, who is a U.S. citizen. "We have been working with eight different countries until we are finally able to secure this visa for him. We hope and pray that his tragic ordeal is over."

    Rodney Germain, an Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman in Miami, confirmed that Al-Najjar was in "removal proceedings" but could not say where he was being sent. Officials at the U.S. Justice Department and INS in Washington, D.C., did not return phone calls Sunday.

    Al-Najjar's wife, Fedaa, will not be able to travel with her husband because she does not have documents allowing her to travel.

    But Sami Al-Arian, Al-Najjar's brother-in-law, said the Egyptian government agreed late last week to renew her expired travel documents, paving the way for her and their three daughters, aged 13, 11 and 7, to join him in about a month.

    "I'm very happy that the miserable condition of my husband will soon end but my daughters have been very sad that they will soon leave the only country they know and love," Mrs. Al-Najjar said in a statement.

    A stateless Palestinian, Al-Najjar came to the United States in 1981 but overstayed a student visa. He was jailed in 1997 in Bradenton on classified evidence allegedly linking him to the Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad, but was never charged.

    He was released 3 1/2 years later in December 2000, after a Miami federal judge ruled his constitutional rights were violated by the government's refusal to divulge the evidence so that he could mount a defense. Last November, a federal appeals court upheld a deportation order for overstaying the visa and ordered him back into custody.

    Al-Najjar and his wife came to the U.S. using Egyptian travel documents. That country refused to renew their documents, though, and the Palestinian Authority declined to issue new ones.

    The Palestinian Authority, which usually only issues travel documents to those in occupied territories, took the unusual step of issuing Al-Najjar documents last week to free him from jail, Hohenstein said.

    "They finally decided that something needed to be done," Hohenstein said. "They looked at the situation and realized he was not able to go any place."

    Mrs. Al-Najjar and the couple's daughters, all of whom are U.S. citizens, will visit him for the last time today at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Sumter County, about 60 miles north of Tampa. Other relatives on a preapproved list can visit but not Al-Arian, who is under federal investigation for a suspected link to terrorism.

    "To get him out of jail, that was the whole goal," Al-Arian said.

    The INS won't tell the family when Al-Najjar will be moved, only that it will be sometime this week, Hohenstein said. Al-Arian said the family will know Al-Najjar has been safely moved because he will call when he arrives in the new country.

    Al-Arian will find out this week whether he will be fired as a USF professor. He made national headlines after his alleged ties to terrorists were aired on national television a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.

    USF President Judy Genshaft put him on paid leave and later said she intended to fire him after the USF board of trustees recommended it. She won't make a final decision until sometime before classes start Aug. 26.

    -- Times staff writer Graham Brink contributed to this report.

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