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    Sister says brother is no terrorist

    The woman testifies that the ex-USF teacher sought funds only for needy West Bank and Gaza children.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 12, 2000

    BRADENTON -- The sister of a man accused of raising funds for Middle East terrorists said Wednesday that the only money solicited was for needy children and orphans in the West Bank and Gaza.

    Testifying at an immigration hearing held to decide if her brother, Mazen Al-Najjar, should get bail after being jailed 31/2 years on secret evidence, Nahla Al-Arian said he is a peaceful man who has never advocated violence or aligned himself with a terrorist group.

    The government says Al-Najjar, a former University of South Florida teacher, used a Tampa think tank and political conferences as fronts for fundraising for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

    After five days of testimony at his bail hearing, however, attorneys for the Immigration and Naturalization Service have yet to produce proof of fundraising or any terrorist activity.

    Al-Najjar is expected to be the sole witness today in the Bradenton courtroom.

    A Palestinian who has lived in the United States almost 20 years, he is fighting deportation on an expired visa, as is his wife, Fedaa. His sister is a U.S. citizen.

    "We didn't support one group over the other" at the political conferences, Nahla Al-Arian said Wednesday. "We invited people from all different parts of the world. We thought America was a free country and could benefit from hearing about our (Palestinian) cause and other Muslim issues."

    Al-Najjar's attorneys narrowly focused their questions on her charity work. Her husband, Sami Al-Arian, is also a target of the government's investigation, and Mrs. Al-Arian brought an attorney along to protect her right not to incriminate her spouse.

    But the government, as it had with two earlier witnesses, did not tackle what was said. Instead, INS general counsel Daniel Vara went after credibility.

    Vara produced a 1993 income tax return and asked why there were 10 deductions though she has five children, suggesting she had lied on the form.

    She explained that her and her husband's parents often live with them.

    Vara asked what property she and her husband owned. He asked about a $1,000 "transaction" she made last year.

    Without more detail, Mrs. Al-Arian said, she could not answer his questions.

    Earlier, professor Basheer Nafi, a former member of the Tampa think tank known as the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, testified by phone from London.

    Vara asked him if he would walk out of a political conference where Israel or the United States were vilified.

    "Why should I?" said Nafi. "People, in a moment of anger when they see their father and brothers and their relatives being shot at by Israeli soldiers, will say something like that."

    He said he denounces violence, and he is not, nor has he ever been, a member of the Islamic Jihad, as the government has alleged.

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