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Lawyers: Free Al-Najjar or rehear case

By SUSAN ASCHOFF

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


Attorneys for Mazen Al-Najjar, armed with a ruling from a federal judge saying his rights were violated, sought his immediate release from jail or a speedy rehearing on bail in paperwork filed Friday.

The motion, submitted to the immigration court in Bradenton, comes two weeks after U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard of Miami ordered a review after finding Al-Najjar was denied due process. Lenard said the immigration court failed to balance the 43-year-old Palestinian's right to defend himself against the government's right to protect national security by keeping its evidence secret.

Immigration Judge R. Kevin McHugh of Bradenton denied bail in June 1997 based on secret evidence. He was later upheld by the Board of Immigration Appeals. Lenard said the judge must first consider eligibility for bail based solely on evidence in open court.

Friday's filing is designed to get the issue before the immigration judge as soon as possible.

"The speed of the process is part of any due process claim. We are not satisfied with a wait-and-see approach," said Joseph Hohenstein of Philadelphia, one of five national attorneys for Al-Najjar.

Al-Najjar has lived in the United States almost 20 years and was a part-time teacher at the University of South Florida. He was arrested May 19, 1997, after being ordered deported for overstaying a student visa. He is appealing his deportation.

McHugh said Al-Najjar is "a well-respected man, socially, religiously and professionally" with strong community ties. But he denied bail based on the classified information that Al-Najjar is a terrorist threat because of an association with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, he said.

Al-Najjar's attorneys said the government's case against him consists of "mere suggestion and innuendo" by INS special agent William West.

Lenard did not prohibit the use of secret evidence in her ruling but said it must be shared in some form with Al-Najjar so he may defend himself. It is unclear how quickly Al-Najjar will go back to court, but Hohenstein said it may happen within three weeks.

Lenard also found that "association," even if proven true, is insufficient to deny Al-Najjar his freedom. The INS must show a "degree of participation" in a terrorist group's activities, she said.

Al-Najjar's attorneys also went to federal court in Washington this week to file a complaint under the Freedom of Information Act. Their requests for government files on Al-Najjar has brought almost no response in over six months.

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