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Imprisoned unfairly in the land of the free

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By MARY JO MELONE, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 20, 2002


These are not good days for asking people to look at the bigger picture. Since Sept. 11, we have been shaped by the narrow lenses of our fears. We see enemies everywhere.

So, to suggest that Mazen Al-Najjar is being mistreated is to invite hollers and jeers.

Al-Najjar, once a teacher at the University of South Florida, has been tried and convicted in that court where verdicts are irreversible -- the court of public opinion.

In the popular mind, Al-Najjar is a terrorist. He's a terrorist and there's nothing more to discuss, thank you, unless it's planning the celebration for the day, later this week, when he leaves the country.

His lawyers disclosed on Sunday that a Middle Eastern country -- which one, they would not say -- has agreed to take Al-Najjar. His wife and children, U.S. citizens all, will follow him later.

When Al-Najjar leaves, under a federal deportation order, the questions will be the same as they were at the start, when in 1997 he was jailed on evidence that supposedly linked him to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

If he had committed a crime, why wasn't he indicted?

If the government wouldn't make the evidence public, or couldn't indict him, why was his freedom denied?

And why was he being treated differently from his brother-in-law, USF professor Sami Al-Arian, whom the government was just as interested in -- so interested that they are once again investigating him?

(Later this week, Al-Arian is also likely to be fired from his teaching job, a move that has enraged academic groups.)

The government had Al-Najjar on a technicality, a long ago expired visa.

They put him in jail after several years of fruitless federal investigation of a couple of groups at USF led by Al-Najjar and Al-Arian.

Al-Najjar has been in jail for more than 41/2 years. Since November, he has been held in solitary confinement -- as if he were some confidante of Osama bin Laden.

I might very well write differently about Al-Najjar if the evidence was available. But even a mountain of incriminating material against him wouldn't affect how Al-Najjar should be treated.

All we have is unidentified sources who claim he was a link between terrorists and the Islamic Jihad organization -- and a lot of confusion.

The same judge, who once released Al-Najjar on the grounds the government had failed to share the evidence so he could defend himself, decided last February that the government had the right to pick him up again and hold him.

There was no new evidence against him, however. Even the prosecutors said so.

Al-Najjar has been held this round for 10 months, a length of time that may be unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that people in his shoes, stateless and without a country to take them, should be held no more than six months.

This is not a small point. The government is flouting the rules. The rules are supposed to apply equally to those we scorn, like Al-Najjar, as they do to the rest of us.

Someday this history will shame us.

We will be ashamed that we treated Al-Najjar with contempt and in violation of the simplest rules of crime and punishment, guilt and innocence.

We didn't have enough evidence to indict him, let alone convict him through that form of fair play known as due process. The best we could do is kick him out of the country.

-- You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelone@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.

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