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Al-Najjar deported again -- maybe

Middle East papers report Mazen Al-Najjar has been deported from Lebanon. A friend in Beirut says it isn't so.

By GRAHAM BRINK, ANITA KUMAR and SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 21, 2002


Former University of South Florida instructor Mazen Al-Najjar, deported to Lebanon last month, is on the move again.

Or maybe he isn't.

Two newspapers in the Middle East reported that Lebanese officials deported Al-Najjar. One said he was sent to Iran. The other said he went to an undisclosed African country.

His family in Tampa said Al-Najjar indeed was deported, but would not say where. But a good friend of Al-Najjar's reached by telephone in Beirut said Al-Najjar had not been deported at all.

He wasn't expected to go anywhere in the near future, the friend said.

That is not true, said Al-Najjar's brother-in-law, Sami Al-Arian. The friend in Lebanon has been threatened with deportation and is scared to talk to anyone for fear of repercussions, Al-Arian said.

"Just for security reasons, he doesn't want to criticize anything," said Al-Arian, a suspended USF professor under federal investigation for alleged ties to terrorism. "The whole family is being put in jeopardy."

After a years-long legal battle, the U.S. government deported Al-Najjar to Lebanon in August. Days later, several Lebanese officials balked at what they saw as the United States illegally dumping Al-Najjar. They talked of not honoring Al-Najjar's six-month visitor's visa.

On Sept. 11, Lebanese government officials arrived at Al-Najjar's sister's house to take him into custody and deport him, Al-Arian said. Al-Najjar secured a one-week extension after explaining that his family was working to find him a new country.

Lebanese government officials returned to the house Wednesday when the entire family was there and took Al-Najjar into custody without handcuffs, Al-Arian said. He asked for another extension, but the request was denied and Al-Najjar didn't resist.

"He was mentally prepared," Al-Arian said. "He was anticipating something was going to happen."

Al-Arian said Lebanon flew Al-Najjar to another country, which he declined to name. The family fears publicity could scare away countries who might accept Al-Najjar on a permanent basis.

His family didn't hear from him until Friday, when Al-Najjar called his sister in Beirut, who then called Tampa. He is free in the undisclosed country but can only stay temporarily, perhaps a few days, Al-Arian said.

The family is working hard to find a permanent home for Al-Najjar. So far, 11 countries have turned down requests for a visa, Al-Arian said.

Al-Najjar's friend, who did not want to be identified by name, said Al-Najjar hadn't gone anywhere. He said he wasn't sure why the newspaper, Al-Safir, reported that Al-Najjar was headed for Iran or why the family in Tampa said he was deported.

Al-Najjar's family and friends in Beirut have worked hard to find a country that will take Al-Najjar on a permanent basis, he said.

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

Al-Najjar, 45, was released 31/2 years later in December 2000, after a federal judge ruled that his constitutional rights were violated by the government's refusal to divulge the evidence against him.

But in November, a federal appeals court upheld a deportation order for overstaying the visa and ordered him back into custody.

Last month, the family finally secured a two-week visa to Bahrain. Al-Najjar left a Sumter County prison escorted by Immigration and Naturalization Service agents. En route to Ireland, they found that Bahrain would reject Al-Najjar.

After negotiations, Al-Najjar and his escorts flew to Italy, and 25 hours later went on to Lebanon, which granted him a six-month visitors visa.

-- Times staff writer Paul de la Garza contributed to this report. Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com

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