Al-Najjar fights anew for release
By SUSAN ASCHOFF
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 9, 2000
Attorneys for Mazen Al-Najjar went to federal court Friday, filing an emergency motion for his immediate release on constitutional grounds.
The Gaza immigrant, jailed more than three years on secret evidence accusing him of terrorism, came within hours of freedom Thursday. An immigration judge ordered his release on bail, but attorneys for the Immigration and Naturalization Service won an indefinite stay so the government can appeal.
While Al-Najjar dejectedly paced the same cell in Bradenton Thursday night, another immigrant in a secret evidence case in Virginia was quietly released to his wife and four children, even though U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno had ordered a stay on that release.
Algerian Anwar Haddam will be free while he fights a government appeal of the political asylum thatwas granted him by an immigration appeals panel.
An INS spokeswoman, when asked why Al-Najjar could not be freed pending appeal, said the cases are different. The stay of Al-Najjar's release on bail was for an order from an immigration judge. Haddam's case already has moved up the administrative ladder for review by Reno, said INS spokeswoman Maria Cardona.
"The INS is obviously desperate," said Haddam's attorney, Malea Kiblan. "I think the release is indicative of that: It's clear none of these cases have panned out."
Al-Najjar's family and supporters think politics is making the government take a harder line in his case: He has been linked to the Damascus-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the situation in the Middle East remains volatile.
The 46-year-old Haddam is a member of the Islamic Salvation Front and was an elected member of the Algerian parliament. The military voided the elections in 1992, and he came to the United States. Haddam believes he was detained for four years by the U.S. government to silence his politicking.
"I don't ask people to support my views but to support my rights. To be treated as a criminal, to be prevented from being a part of the life of my children . . . is a travesty of justice," Haddam said Friday after his unexpected release. After waiting in an INS office for hours Thursday, he did not know he was free, he said, until the handcuffs were removed and he saw his attorney.
Al-Najjar, meanwhile, was ordered deported on an expired student visa in 1997, then jailed without bail when Immigration Judge R. Kevin McHugh heard secret evidence alleging ties to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. When immigration appeals failed, Al-Najjar's attorneys went to U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard in Miami.
Lenard ordered a rehearing. She said the 43-year-old father of three was denied his constitutional rights because he could not defend himself against secret evidence. The government can use it, Lenard acknowledged, but it must give Al-Najjar information about its contents so he can fight back.
McHugh ordered Al-Najjar released Thursday after finding the government failed to tell Al-Najjar enough information about the evidence. A one-page unclassified summary and a 16-page "unclassified extract" -- information with sensitive material blacked out -- were insufficient, McHugh said. The summary links Al-Najjar to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad but supplies no details. The extract, McHugh said, has no additional information.
INS is appealing McHugh's decision to release Al-Najjar to the Board of Immigration Appeals.
On Friday, Al-Najjar's attorneys filed an emergency motion with Lenard for Al-Najjar's immediate release. They hope the judge will act within a week.
"The BIA and INS do not have the authority to decide the constitutional issues," said Randall Marshall, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and one of Al-Najjar's attorneys.
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