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Reno blocks Al-Najjar's release

For the third time this week, hopes for freedom are dashed for the man accused of having terrorist ties but never charged.

By SUSAN ASCHOFF

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000


BRADENTON -- On Tuesday morning, 12-year-old Yara carried the shirt her father would wear to walk out of jail. The hem dragged on the floor each time she swiveled her head to look at the glass doors.

Her sister, Sarah, 10, nervously rubbed her chapped lips.

The youngest, 5-year-old Safa, leaned against her mother's legs, dressed in a bright red jumper with a doggie applique.

They were waiting for their father. But once again, Mazen Al-Najjar, detained 31/2 years on secret evidence alleging terrorist ties, never left the jail.

Shortly after 9 a.m., Attorney General Janet Reno ordered a stay of Al-Najjar's release, until 5 p.m. Friday, so she could review the case.

"It's not fair," said Safa.

It was the third time in a week that Al-Najjar's release seemed imminent, only to be blocked by an immigration appeals panel or, on Tuesday, Reno.

Al-Najjar's attorneys said they would push for his immediate release before U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard in Miami. Lenard could free Al-Najjar, 43, on constitutional grounds as early as this afternoon if she chooses.

The attorneys also will file a legal memo with Reno saying her intervention is inappropriate after immigration judges have ruled.

Nationwide, supporters began e-mailing and faxing Reno's office as word of the delay spread.

"We're all so distraught," House Minority Whip David Bonior said on the sidewalk outside the Immigration and Naturalization Service facility in Bradenton, where family and friends had converged. "This man has been held 1,303 days of his life."

Bonior, a Michigan Democrat, introduced legislation to stop the use of secret evidence as unconstitutional. Bonior flew to Tampa late Monday, he said, to celebrate Al-Najjar's release.

"We will continue to fight to make this happen," he promised Tuesday. "I really don't know what the reason is (Reno) did not release him now."

The stay says she will "personally review the appropriateness of allowing (Al-Najjar's) immediate release." A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment further.

Reno is intimately familiar with the case. Her deputy, Eric Holder, reviewed it two years ago, and she has met with Bonior and others opposed to the INS practice of using classified information to bar or detain immigrants.

There are about two dozen cases nationwide, almost all involving Muslims or Arabs accused as terrorists but charged with no crime.

In other cases, Reno has issued stays of several days, then taken no further action. On Thursday, she ordered a 45-day stay for an Algerian man jailed four years in Virginia. Anwar Haddam was quietly released the same night.

"I feel so frustrated," said Mazen Al-Najjar's sister, Nahla Al-Arian. Feeling shaky, she sat on a brick wall outside the jail to field calls on her cell phone, including one from their parents in the United Arab Emirates.

Muslims are observing the holy month of Ramadan, and many fast from sunrise to sunset. Al-Arian said no one could eat before driving to the jail at 6:30 a.m. because they were too nervous.

"I'm worried about Mazen," she said. "Mazen is going to be devastated now. I know him."

An immigrant from Gaza who moved to the United States almost 20 years ago, Al-Najjar earned a doctorate in engineering at the University of South Florida. He was ordered deported in May 1997 for overstaying his student visa, then jailed without bail because the government says he is a threat.

The INS says Al-Najjar's life was a front to hide his fundraising for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Judge Lenard found that denying Al-Najjar bail based on secret evidence, without giving him enough information to defend himself, was a violation of his due process.

She ordered a rehearing before immigration judge R. Kevin McHugh. After taking public testimony and hearing secret evidence in private, McHugh last Wednesday decided the government did not make its case and set bail at $8,000.

The INS sought and got a stay, which ended Monday when an immigration appeals panel ruled about 4 p.m. that the INS has "little likelihood" of winning its appeal and Al-Najjar should get out.

That's when Reno stepped in.

"This is a shame for this country," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, who joined the group at the jail.

Al-Najjar's wife, Fedaa Al-Najjar, speculated that Reno may want to release her husband when there are fewer cameras and lawmakers around.

"If they are worried about the publicity," she said, "they can just give him some money and he'll take a taxicab home. He would be happy to do that."

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