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    Al-Najjar 'close' to being freed

    A panel lifts a stay that had confined the Tampa man to a detention center.

    By SUSAN ASCHOFF

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000


    A Tampa man jailed three years on secret evidence alleging terrorist ties could be set free this morning, barring another loop on the roller-coaster ride that has become his fight with the U.S. government.

    An immigration appeals panel on Monday unexpectedly lifted a stay, granted five days earlier, that had confined Mazen Al-Najjar to a detention center in Bradenton.

    An appeal by the government has "little likelihood" of success, the panel found, and Al-Najjar should go free.

    The 43-year-old teacher could leave the Immigration and Naturalization Service facility as early as 8 a.m. His family and friends will be there with a check for the $8,000 bail when it opens, they said.

    "He is very close to walking out the door," said Al-Najjar's attorney, Georgetown University law professor David Cole.

    The INS still has options.

    For one, it could seek another stay in federal court.

    More likely, the INS will ask Attorney General Janet Reno to intervene. In at least two similar cases of secret evidence being used against immigrants, Reno, at the request of the INS, has halted releases ordered by judges so she could review them.

    Nasser Ahmed of New York spent an additional 10 days behind bars, and New Jersey resident Hany Kiareldeen was jailed another week.

    "What (Reno) has done in the past is she's often granted a temporary stay, and then not done anything" to pursue the case, said Cole.

    The attorney general is familiar with Al-Najjar's story.

    Over the past two years she has repeatedly met with civil rights and Muslim groups, congressmen and others working to free the longtime U.S. resident, who came to the United States almost 20 years ago from the Gaza Strip to go to college.

    Al-Najjar, Ahmed and Kiareldeen are among two dozen immigrants nationwide suspected of ties with terrorists. Almost all are Arab or Muslim.

    They have not been charged with a crime but were detained on classified evidence, kept from them and their attorneys for security reasons.

    The government says Al-Najjar, a former Arabic teacher at the University of South Florida, participated in a USF-affiliated think tank that was a front for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

    Al-Najjar was ordered deported for overstaying a student visa, then jailed during his appeal because the government says he is a threat.

    Defeated in immigration court, Al-Najjar's attorneys asked a federal judge for relief.

    U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard ordered a rehearing. Last week, after taking both public and classified evidence, immigration Judge R. Kevin McHugh ordered Al-Najjar released. McHugh said the government failed to prove its case in open court and denied Al-Najjar his right to defend himself by not sharing enough of its secret evidence.

    Although McHugh ordered Al-Najjar's release on Wednesday, he went nowhere.

    The INS obtained a stay of McHugh's order from the Board of Immigration Appeals, saying it wanted to appeal the release of Al-Najjar while he fights his deportation.

    Monday's three-paragraph decision by the immigration panel was the latest in weeks of twists and turns for Al-Najjar and his family.

    On Monday his wife, Fedaa Al-Najjar, said she "didn't want to be happy" for fear she would be disappointed again.

    "We knew Mazen would be out," said his brother-in-law, USF professor Sami Al-Arian. "It's just a matter of when."

    On Monday, fearing more INS delays, attorneys filed briefs with Judge Lenard in Miami, seeking Al-Najjar's release on constitutional grounds.

    Previous coverage

    Al-Najjar fights anew for release

    Jailed teacher held indefinitely

    Bail is granted in secret evidence case

    Judge will hear secret evidence

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