By Munir K. Nasser
Chief Correspondent, Washington, DC
Dr. Mazen Al-Najjar, a stateless Palestinian who was detained in a Florida jail without charges for three years and seven months as a suspected supporter of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, was freed on Friday after a long legal battle with the US government.
"It is a great day for justice. It feels as if I've awakened from the nightmare," the 43-year-old Palestinian from Gaza said on the steps of the Florida detention facility.
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.” 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 remains under a deportation order and is working to fight it. His attorneys are scheduled to argue his case and that of his wife before Court of Appeals in January. Al-Najjar is expected to argue now that the U.S government's unproven accusations of terrorism mean that 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."
It took an order from Attorney General Janet Reno to finally free the Palestinian professor. Orders for his release issued over the past nine days by an immigration judge and an immigration appeals panel were blocked when the Immigration and Naturalization Service objected.
Reno phoned Representative David Bonior and Senator Spencer Abraham, both of Michigan, on Friday to inform them first of her decision to lift the block against Najjar. 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," Bonior said.
INS and FBI agents began looking at Al-Najjar in 1995 when the local press 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. 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 to be 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. A US District Judge ordered a rehearing, saying the one in 1997 violated his constitutional right to due process and he could not defend himself against secret evidence.
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 Islamic group. 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.
Last week, the US government released Dr. Anwar Haddam, an Algerian politician who had just started his fifth year of secret evidence incarceration, after he was granted political asylum by the Board of Immigration Appeals.
The actions of the Justice Department in releasing Haddam and Najjar come in the context of growing support in both houses of Congress for legislation abolishing the use of secret evidence, which seems very likely to be become law. Both the Gore and Bush campaigns endorsed this legislation.
Hala Maksoud, President of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said secret evidence should never be the basis for putting anyone in jail and urged all members of Congress to support the pending legislation that would abolish the use of secret evidence once and for all. She also urged the next Attorney General to uphold President-elect Bush’s campaign promise not to use secret evidence.
Dr. James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute said Najjar’s arrest for almost four years is an “unconstitutional procedure that can only be described as a blight on America's democracy.” However, Zogby said that Al-Najjar's release does not end the fight to “protect others from the use of this Kafkaesque tool by enacting the Secret Evidence Repeal Act, which has the support of the President-elect and numerous members of Congress. We call on president-elect Bush to make this legislation one of his top priorities upon taking office," he said.
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)