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Al-Najjar finally out after 3 years

Still, Reno says he should be deported.

By SUSAN ASCHOFF

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 16, 2000


BRADENTON -- Mazen Al-Najjar, detained without charges for three years and seven months as a suspected terrorist, walked out of jail Friday afternoon to be enveloped by his tearful children and a community of supporters who never gave up.

It took an order from Attorney General Janet Reno to finally free the Tampa professor. Orders for his release issued over the past nine days by an immigration judge and an immigration appeals panel were stayed when the Immigration and Naturalization Service objected.

Reno announced her decision before noon, beating a self-imposed 5 p.m. deadline so Al-Najjar's family could pay the $8,000 bail before the Bradenton INS office closed.

"It is a great day for justice. It feels as if I've awakened from the nightmare," the 43-year-old Palestinian said on the steps of the detention facility. Wearing a cardigan and slacks brought to the jail by family, his brown hair now white, Al-Najjar faced reporters and friends, many of whom carried American flags because "we believe in the Constitution," he said.

His 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, would not release his hand. When he finished speaking, he scooped up Safa, 5. His eldest daughter, 12-year-old Yara, stood to the side. While she waited for her father to come out, Yara insisted he would not, that the government would "trick us again."

Now, her father motioned to her. Yara went to him, her eyes tearful. He kissed her forehead, and touched her cheek.

"Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar! God is great! God is great!," chanted the crowd, many of them members of Al-Najjar's mosque in east Tampa.

His release is the latest chapter in a six-year controversy that began with accusations that he and others at a University of South Florida-affiliated think tank were harboring and funding Middle East terrorists. His detention would become an international cause. The use of secret evidence against Al-Najjar and others was discussed in Congress and referred to in a campaign debate by President-elect George W. Bush.

Al-Najjar has always maintained his innocence. On Friday, he said he never lost faith in his adopted country.

"It is only in this great country that my parents would become U.S. citizens. They've never been citizens anywhere," he said of their naturalization ceremonies earlier this year.

"The dark side of the experience is . . . me."

Al-Najjar remains under a deportation order and is working to fight it. His attorneys are scheduled to argue his case and that of his wife, Fedaa, before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in January. Ironically, Al-Najjar now will claim that the U.S. government's accusations of terrorism, though unproven, mean no country will take him and that he must be given political asylum here.

In a written statement Friday, Reno said she believes the nation has been "well-served by the efforts of the INS to remove Mr. Al-Najjar expeditiously from the country. We anticipate that he could be deported from the United States soon."

Reno phoned House Minority Whip David Bonior and Sen. Spencer Abraham, both of Michigan, on Friday to inform them first of her decision to lift the stay. Bonior introduced legislation to ban the use of secret evidence. He flew to Tampa for Al-Najjar's expected release on Tuesday, which was halted by Reno for further review.

"Although I regret it took the Justice Department 1,300 days to release Mazen Al-Najjar, I am pleased that this day has finally come," he said.

INS and FBI agents began looking at Al-Najjar about the time the Tampa Tribune reported in May 1995 that he and his brother-in-law, tenured USF professor Sami Al-Arian, were at the center of a terrorist cell operating out of Tampa.

A think tank called the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, or WISE, was a cover for fundraising and plotting, agents said.

The investigation ignited when a WISE administrator, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, became the new leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in October 1995, a few months after leaving Tampa. The Damascus-based group claims bombings to derail the Middle East peace process.

A grand jury closed its investigation without taking any action. No one has been charged with a crime.

But Al-Najjar's visa had long ago expired. Agents arrested him in May 1997 and asked him about his friends. He was ordered deported and detained without bail on secret evidence alleging "an association with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad."

After losing in immigration courts, and with no more information on why he was jailed than when he started, Al-Najjar sought relief in federal court. U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard ordered a rehearing, saying the one in 1997 violated his constitutional right to due process -- he could not defend himself against secret evidence, she said in her ruling last May.

The task went to the same judge who denied Al-Najjar bail in the first place.

This time Immigration Judge R. Kevin McHugh again heard the government's secret evidence. But McHugh said the summary to be shared with Al-Najjar was insufficient. On Dec. 6, McHugh ordered him released. Three stays by the government followed, the last one by Reno.

There are almost two dozen cases involving secret evidence against immigrants across the United States. In some, detainees eventually were given pages of evidence, while Al-Najjar has received only the one sentence tying him to the terrorist group.

"I think it's better Janet Reno was the one who let him out," his sister Nahla Al-Arian said Friday. "It helps his image in the community. He is not a bad man."

Since 1987, 18 immigrants known to be jailed on secret evidence -- virtually all of them Arabs or Muslims -- have won their cases and been released.

A chronology

DECEMBER 1981: Mazen Al-Najjar enters United States from Gaza on a student visa and studies for his master's degree at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro.

JUNE 1986: Al-Najjar moves to Tampa to be near family and friends and earn a doctorate in engineering at the University of South Florida.

MAY 7, 1987: Al-Najjar asks the Immigration and Naturalization Service to meet with him on his now-messy immigration status. He eventually obtains a work permit, but no resolution.

FEB. 13, 1995: Al-Najjar's immigration case reopened.

MAY 1995: Tampa Tribune publishes stories linking Al-Najjar and his brother-in-law Sami Al-Arian to Middle East terrorists.

JULY 18, 1996: An immigration hearing on Al-Najjar begins in Orlando, with the government seeking to deport him as an illegal resident.

MAY 13, 1997: Al-Najjar and his wife, Fedaa, are ordered deported on expired visas, he to the United Arab Emirates and she to Saudi Arabia, their last countries of residence.

MAY 19: INS agents arrest Al-Najjar at his Temple Terrace apartment and take him to an INS detention facility in Bradenton to be held while he appeals the deportation order.

JUNE 6: Immigration Judge R. Kevin McHugh denies bail after reviewing classified evidence from the government. McHugh issues a one-sentence summary that says Al-Najjar is "associated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and a threat to national security."

JULY 7, 1998: Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, after reviewing Al-Najjar's case, says his detention on secret evidence complies with procedures.

SEPT. 15: The Board of Immigration Appeals upholds McHugh's denial of bail.

DEC. 7: Al-Najjar asks to leave for Guyana in South America. No country in the Middle East will take him because he is a Palestinian, and accused of terrorism, he says. Guyana later denies admission as well.

DEC. 22, 1999: Al-Najjar's attorneys file a habeas petition in a Miami federal court, demanding his release on constitutional grounds.

MAY 31, 2000: U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard in Miami rules the government violated Al-Najjar's constitutional rights. If it wants to keep him jailed on secret evidence, it must give him enough information about it to defend himself. She orders a rehearing on bail, but stops short of releasing him herself.

JULY 24: Amnesty International declares Mazen Al-Najjar a prisoner of conscience and asks the U.S. Justice Department to review his case.

AUG. 29: Immigration Judge McHugh begins the public bail hearing for Al-Najjar. The government introduces videotapes of political conferences held in the early 1990s; Sami Al-Arian, Al-Najjar's brother-in-law, takes the stand and invokes his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination 100 times because he, too, is under investigation.

AUG. 30: INS agent William West fails to offer proof of his allegations that Al-Najjar solicited money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and exhibits cursory knowledge of Middle East politics and history during second day of bond hearing.

AUG. 31: Al-Najjar's attorneys call a halt when the government says it is ready to present secret evidence in a closed-door session with McHugh. Georgetown University law professor David Cole argues that McHugh must rule on the public portion of hearing first, and not take secret evidence until he ensures that a summary to be given Al-Najjar is adequate.

SEPT. 12: Lenard, the federal judge, agrees with Al-Najjar's attorneys, saying the immigration judge must first rule on bail based on the public case, then may proceed to the classified one. She does not order the government to release its summary in advance.

OCT. 10: Al-Najjar's bail hearing resumes, and in four days of testimony the government labels monies raised for orphans and in personal accounts as fundraising for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Al-Najjar counters that none of the activity was for terrorists.

OCT. 27: Immigration Judge McHugh says he will release Al-Najjar immediately, finding the government failed to prove a single allegation in open court, unless the government now wants to submit secret evidence.

DEC. 6: After hearing secret testimony, then reviewing a one-page summary of its contents to be shared with Al-Najjar, Immigration Judge McHugh finds summary inadequate and orders Al-Najjar released on $8,000 bail. The Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington grants a 24-hour hold at the request of the INS, which says it wants to appeal. The stay is extended indefinitely the next day.

DEC. 11: INS has little likelihood of winning its appeal, the Board of Immigration Appeals finds, and vacates the stay so Al-Najjar can bail out.

DEC. 12: Family and friends are at the jail when doors open at 8, but after more than an hour's wait, Attorney General Janet Reno stays Al-Najjar's release, until 5 p.m. Dec. 15 and pending her decision about whether the government will proceed. Al-Najjar's attorneys object with Reno and with U.S. District Judge Lenard in Miami.

DEC. 15: Al-Najjar released on bail.

- Compiled by researcher Caryn Baird

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