No explanation, no charges, but man stays in jail

Published May 5, 2007

TAMPA - Iyad Abuhajjaj's attorney wants answers.

Abuhajjaj, 36, caused concern among the crew on a Southwest Airlines flight from Phoenix to Tampa in late February when he watched graphic torture scenes from a Stanford University student film.

Detained after the flight, the Palestinian health care worker and part-time actor was arrested in Hillsborough County on an unrelated charge, accused of threatening an Okaloosa County woman he met online in 2002.

Now he's being held by immigration authorities in a northern Florida jail. His attorney, Tallahassee's Neil Rambana, says the government won't say why Abuhajjaj is in jail.

Rambana has filed paperwork in federal court in the Northern District of Florida, demanding the government explain the accusations against his client. In documents filed in mid April, he accused the Homeland Security Department of holding his client illegally.

"Tell us what's the deal, " Rambana said. "Don't just hold people without giving us some answers. If there were a warrant for his arrest, then we'd certainly like to see it."

The U.S. Attorney's Office has not yet responded to Rambana's demand.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Alan Sprowls said he could not comment on the investigation.

"I can't say we're investigating somebody; I can't say we're not, " he said.

In court documents, Rambana says his client believes he is being held to force him to cooperate with the Homeland Security Department to "spy on fellow Muslims."

Jail personnel at the Wakulla facility said only that immigration authorities were holding Abuhajjaj.

He is married to an American citizen, who successfully petitioned in 2005 for him to live in the United States, Rambana said.

Abuhajjaj attracted attention on a flight Feb. 28 when he flew from his home in San Jose, Calif., to Phoenix, then on to Tampa for a vacation.

On the plane, he turned on his laptop and watched scenes from a movie he acted in with Stanford University students. Called The Strange Case of Salman abd al Haqq, the film deals with the arrest and interrogation of terrorism suspects. Characters speak in English and Arabic.

Abuhajjaj said he wondered if the crew or passengers thought the footage was real.

When he got off the plane, he was detained by airport police, who questioned him. A police report says only that he was "a suspicious person, " and that "Southwest personnel advised that the passenger's behavior changed during the flight."

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com.