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    Without warning, Al-Najjar jailed

    Jailed for 3 1/2 years on secret evidence, then freed, the former USF teacher's detention is not based on new evidence.

    By MIKE BRASSFIELD
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published November 25, 2001


    TAMPA -- With his wife at work and his three daughters still in bed, Mazen Al-Najjar walked out of his apartment Saturday morning to get quarters to do his laundry. Outside, INS agents were waiting to take him away.

    Al-Najjar, a former University of South Florida teacher who was jailed for 31/2 years on secret evidence allegedly tying him to terrorism, was rearrested Saturday for overstaying his visa. After spending nearly a year in freedom, he is in federal prison.

    His arrest Saturday was not based on new evidence or classified information, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

    Al-Najjar, who entered the United States from Gaza in 1981 and overstayed his student visa, has been fighting deportation since 1996. A federal appeals court affirmed a deportation order against him on Nov. 15, and that's why the INS detained him, federal authorities said.

    However, Al-Najjar is a stateless Palestinian who says no country will accept him because his name has been unjustly linked to terrorism. It's unclear whether he could be deported to another country or whether he would simply stay behind bars in the United States indefinitely.

    His lawyers say Al-Najjar shouldn't be imprisoned, and they're vowing to take his long-running case to the Supreme Court.

    "Why detain a person who has never been accused of a crime, who has already lost 31/2 years of his life to an unconstitutional detention and who has nowhere to go?" said David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who represents Al-Najjar. "It would be one thing if they had a country in mind. But it's unlikely they're going to be able to deport him."

    Al-Najjar was being held Saturday at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex near Bushnell, about 75 miles north of Tampa Bay in rural Sumter County.

    His arrest is the latest chapter in a seven-year controversy that started with accusations that he and others at a USF-affiliated think tank were funding the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group responsible for suicide bombings in Israel.

    Al-Najjar was detained without charges for 1,307 days on the basis of secret government evidence that he has never seen. He was never charged and always maintained his innocence. His detention became an international cause.

    In May 2000, a U.S. district judge in Miami ruled that Al-Najjar's rights were violated because the government wouldn't share enough of its evidence to allow him to defend himself. Then-Attorney General Janet Reno ordered his release in December 2000.

    When he walked out of an INS detention center in Bradenton 49 weeks ago, he embraced his family as members of his Tampa mosque chanted "Allahu akbar! God is great!"

    But on Saturday, worshipers at the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area Mosque were observing Ramadan without him.

    "The brother was very active here. We're very sad and very shocked," said Dr. Baha Alak, a Tampa infertility specialist. "There was a big celebration here last year when he was released. Now we are back to our feelings of injustice and the inhumane treatment of his case in particular."

    After an appeals court gave the go-ahead for Al-Najjar to be deported, his family knew he could be arrested. Government officials did not say what they planned to do. Al-Najjar's wife, Fedaa, had been reluctant to leave him to go to her job in St. Petersburg, but she went to work Saturday.

    "You never expect it to happen on the weekend," she said.

    Al-Najjar told his three daughters that he was going to a gas station for quarters. He never came back. He asked INS agents to call his brother-in-law, Sami Al-Arian, who went to Al-Najjar's home to tell the girls, ages 6, 11 and 13, what had happened.

    "The family has suffered enough. There was no need for this detention," Al-Arian said. "He has no place to go. He is willing to cooperate. If they find him a country, he'd be more than willing to relocate."

    Al-Najjar wants to be given political asylum in the United States but has been denied.

    Deportation orders would send him to the United Arab Emirates and his wife to Saudi Arabia, their last residences before moving to the United States in the 1980s. But their lawyers say neither country will accept them.

    Al-Najjar's lawyers are arguing his case in court, and now they'll be fighting his detention. They say the government is using Al-Najjar as a test case for expanding its antiterrorism powers in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

    The Justice Department released a statement Saturday reiterating its accusations against Al-Najjar, but the evidence that purportedly links him to terrorism remains a mystery.

    "This case underscores the Justice Department's commitment to address terrorism by using all legal authorities available," the statement said.

    -- Times staff writer Tim Grant and photographer Stefanie Boyar contributed to this report.

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