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Shortly before his release, an immigration appeals panel decides to hold Mazen Al-Najjar indefinitely despite a judge's order to free him on bail.
By SUSAN ASCHOFF
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 2000
Mazen Al-Najjar came within hours of freedom Thursday, but neither an order from a judge nor power lobbying at the White House would open the door to his Bradenton cell.
The 43-year-old Tampa teacher has been detained 3 1/2 years on secret evidence alleging he is a terrorist. On Thursday an immigration appeals panel decided to hold him indefinitely despite a judge's order to release him on bail.
The stay, requested by attorneys for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, was issued three hours before Al-Najjar likely would have posted bail.
"Oh, my God. Oh, my God," said his wife, Fedaa Al-Najjar, upon hearing of the stay. A pharmacist, she left work early to clean and cook for her husband and be with their three daughters. "Why are they doing that?" she said in a whisper. "What do they want?"
In Washington, D.C., House Minority Whip David Bonior met Thursday afternoon with White House Chief of Staff John Podesta to urge Al-Najjar's release. Upon word of the stay, he called for the resignation of Attorney General Janet Reno.
"This is just an outrage in this country," the Michigan Democrat said. "The judges have ruled there is no evidence against this man. I've been in this business for 30 years, and I've never seen an injustice like this."
Earlier Thursday, Reno issued a 45-day stay on the release of another immigrant held on secret evidence. Algerian Anwar Haddam has twice won political asylum but is still fighting INS appeals. Haddam has been jailed four years in Virginia and is refusing to eat.
Bonior introduced a bill last session to ban the use of secret evidence against immigrants. About two dozen nationwide are involved in such cases, jailed without bond as terrorists but not told of the evidence against them or charged with any crime. They are overwhelmingly Arab and Muslim, as is Al-Najjar.
"This is very similar to a knock on one's door by the Gestapo," Bonior said.
Meanwhile, Al-Najjar's attorneys today intend to file an emergency motion for his release with U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard in Miami. Lenard has been involved in the case on constitutional grounds.
Al-Najjar moved to the United States from Gaza almost 20 years ago to attend college. He earned a doctorate in engineering, worked as a part-time Arabic teacher at the University of South Florida and at a USF-affiliated think tank nearby. He was ordered deported for overstaying his student visa and was jailed on secret evidence after stories in the Tampa Tribune in 1995 said the think tank was a front for Middle East terrorists.
Though the government failed to prove any terrorist activity or fundraising by Al-Najjar at the public hearing that ended in October, INS District Counsel Daniel Vara said Thursday that Immigration Judge R. Kevin McHugh erred in ordering his release on Wednesday.
"The government has a significant amount of evidence that Al-Najjar has engaged in acts of terrorism," Vara said.
When asked what evidence, he responded, "It's classified. Its disclosure would harm the national security of the United States."
In 10 days of public testimony, Al-Najjar was shown in 40 seconds of videotape introducing a speaker at a political conference, and said he was an acquaintance of Middle East scholars the government says are terrorists but whom the INS granted visas.
It is not known what the secret evidence against him contains, only that the government says it links Al-Najjar to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a designated terrorist group based in Syria.
In May, Judge Lenard ordered the rehearing on the matter of bail after finding Al-Najjar was denied due process in 1997 because the government didn't give him enough information to defend himself. McHugh this week found the same.
The government's appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, whether successful or not, could keep Al-Najjar in jail for months.
"Our argument is that (the BIA) does not have jurisdiction in this case," said Nancy Chang, who is with the Center for Constitutional Rights and one of Al-Najjar's attorneys.
Family of detainee feels like suspects (April 24, 2000)
FBI says five held on secret evidence (February 29, 2000)
The eight immigrants (February 29, 2000)