Al-Arian associate remains confined

Immigration officials are still holding Sameeh Hammoudeh because he could have terrorism ties.

Published January 19, 2006

TAMPA - Although a jury acquitted Sameeh Hammoudeh of terrorism charges, immigration officials are not convinced.

They want to keep him in jail, and on Wednesday a U.S. immigration judge denied him bail.

"Hammoudeh is being held because (immigration) still believes he has ties to terrorism," said Pam McCullough, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The agency will not release Hammoudeh, a co-defendant in the Sami Al-Arian trial, pending his deportation on a federal tax evasion conviction.

Hammoudeh's situation is reminiscent of Al-Arian's brother in law, Mazen Al-Najjar, who was arrested for violating immigration laws and denied bail because the government said it had secret evidence of his terrorist ties. Al-Najjar spent more than four years behind bars before he was deported.

McCullough acknowledged Hammoudeh's acquittal but said immigration officials don't agree with the jury's unanimous decision.

"Beyond saying that, I can't comment because I'm trying to understand this myself," she said.

On Feb. 20, Hammoudeh will have been in prison for three years. He was held without bail until the terrorism trial was finished in early December.

When the jury acquitted Hammoudeh, U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. ordered him released.

But immigration officials immediately rearrested him.

"I am so very frustrated," Hammoudeh, 45, and the father of six children, told the St. Petersburg Times.

Before the six-month terrorism trial began in June, Hammoudeh and his wife, Nadia, pleaded guilty to income tax evasion for not paying $8,027 in taxes over 11 years. Hammoudeh agreed to plead guilty in exchange for probation until he and his wife are deported.

Steve Crawford, Hammoudeh's attorney for the tax case, called it "a blatant attempt by prosecutors to pressure him to give information on Al-Arian" for the terrorism case.

A one-time doctoral student at the University of South Florida and a private school teacher, Hammoudeh insisted he "had nothing to give" on Al-Arian.

On Wednesday, Hammoudeh attorney Stephen Bernstein stood in a makeshift courtroom in Bradenton and asked U.S Immigration Judge Gail Padgett to release Hammoudeh because his plea agreement in the tax evasion case stated he was "not to have jail time."

Hammoudeh, in drab prison blues, sat next to Bernstein. His wife and two oldest daughters sat behind them, hoping to finally take him home to Temple Terrace.

Padgett told Bernstein: "The immigration court does not have jurisdiction to release him."

Bernstein's reply: "Then, who does?"

Padgett's response: "I don't know. All I know for sure is it's not my jurisdiction. But whose it is, I am not really sure."

It might be up to immigration supervisor David Wing, Padgett suggested. But Bernstein said he already had talked to Wing, who said "he had no discretion." Padgett concluded that Wing "may be right because this is an unusual case."

In the hallway after the hearing, Bernstein said: "The path to getting Sameeh Hammoudeh released is like a maze. Every time you make a turn there's another block."

Bernstein said Wednesday he will next go to Moody. "Surely, Moody has the power to do something," he said.

But McCullough said immigration officials are responsible, not the federal court.

Also Wednesday, Moody denied an acquittal request from Al-Arian in the terrorism case. Al-Arian, Hammoudeh and two other defendants were charged with raising money for the violent acts of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Al-Arian was acquitted on eight counts and the jury hung on nine counts.

"It's disappointing that Judge Moody didn't order a hearing for Al-Arian because there are very real acquittal issues here," said Al-Arian's attorney, Bill Moffitt.

On Hammoudeh's legal limbo, Moffitt said, "A man who's acquitted can't find his way out of prison? Welcome to the war against terrorism."

Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this story.