By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published September 3, 2003
When former University of South Florida instructor Mazen Al-Najjar was deported last year, it took a private jet, four pilots and a four-man escort to get him from Florida to Beirut, Lebanon.
It also cost U.S. taxpayers at least $138,995.
That's the figure released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in response to a request filed by the St. Petersburg Times in October. The department did not give a breakdown of the cost, and it is not known whether the figure includes the salaries of the flight crew and others who made the trip.
A stateless Palestinian, the 46-year-old Al-Najjar was jailed for almost five years on accusations he had links to Palestinian terrorists. Although never charged with a crime, he overstayed his student visa and was deported in August 2002 in what became a 48-hour, problem-plagued international odyssey.
Martin Schwartz, a Tampa lawyer who represented Al-Najjar, said it was unnecessary for the U.S. government to go to such expense.
"Generally with an alien who's being deported, immigration authorities often will put them on a commercial flight," Schwartz said Tuesday. "Al-Najjar was an individual who was never convicted of a crime and never posed any danger to the community. For those reasons it was not necessary for the government to treat him like a criminal and spend so much money to remove him, especially as Dr. Al-Najjar wanted to leave the country."
From Tampa, British Airways provides service to Beirut through London. Based on current published fares, the cost for Al-Najjar to have flown one way accompanied by two guards going round-trip would have been no more than $7,005.
The new Department of Homeland Security, which includes the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, often charters planes to deport "a whole bunch of people" at once to countries that are expensive to reach by commercial flights, spokesman Garrison Courtney said.
However, he said, chartering a jet for a single deportee "isn't something we typically do."
The exception would be "a case like this, where there are a lot of issues that deal with national security, that deal with maybe possible terrorist ties or maybe safety issues to both the person we are removing and our officers," Courtney said.
For Al-Najjar, the federal government chartered a corporate jet on which singer Britney Spears once flew. The plane also carried two pilots and two co-pilots, a doctor and three INS officials.
The destination was the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain, where Al-Najjar planned to stay for two weeks until he found a country that would permanently accept him.
The jet left Gainesville on Aug. 22, 2002, and stopped in Ireland to refuel. From there it continued to Rome, where the crew went to a hotel. Despite sweltering heat, Italian authorities would not let Al-Najjar off the plane for 25 hours.
Meanwhile, Bahraini authorities apparently became nervous because of publicity about the case and withdrew their permission to let the plane land there.
Al-Najjar, fearing he might end up back in a Florida prison, told the INS officials that his family had obtained a Lebanese visa for him. After another flurry of talks between Al-Najjar's lawyers and the U.S. government, the jet took off that Aug. 24 and arrived 31/2 hours later in Beirut.
Al-Najjar stayed in Lebanon only a few weeks amid complaints by some Lebanese officials that the United States had "illegally dumped" him in their country. In September, he was deported to an undisclosed location.
The entire deportation hassle could have been avoided, Al-Najjar told the Times in a phone interview last year, had the U.S. government allowed him to go to Bahrain on a commercial flight rather than a private jet that needed special permission to land.
"The problem was the chartered plane that taxpayers paid so much for. It was counterproductive - it raised suspicions."
Last February, Al-Najjar's wife also was deported. She and her three daughters, ages 7, 12 and 14, were allowed to fly unescorted on a commercial plane from New York.
The family now lives in "a nice Arab country" where Al-Najjar works as a translator despite diabetes-related health problems, according to his sister, Nahla Al-Arian of Tampa.
"He knows he needs to work really hard now before the illness deteriorates," she said Tuesday. "He is doing his best to support his family."
Nahla Al-Arian is married to Sami Al-Arian, the former USF professor who was indicted earlier this year on charges he supported and raised money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Al-Arian is being held without bail in the same Sumter County prison from which Al-Najjar was released last August.
Nahla Al-Arian said her husband and brother were trying to "defend our rights" as Palestinians in the struggle against Israel, and that neither posed any threat to the United States.
"Despite everything that has happened to me and my family, we still love America," she said. "I can't hate America because I know this is a tough time now and you should always distinguish between what's going wrong and how nice the people are."
That, she said, is why Al-Najjar's daughters - who were born in America and are U.S. citizens - "still love this country and want to come back and live here."