Faced with uncertainty

Attorneys for the federal government are attempting to overturn a district court ruling that last year freed Mazen Al-Najjar, a former USF adjunct professor who was jailed for three years and seven months on secret evidence. It was evidence the government said tied him to terrorist groups.

The appeal by the government will be heard this morning in a Miami courtroom.

Al-Najjar was released on bail in December 2000 after U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard ruled that he was not given due process, judicial proceedings intended to protect an individual’s legal rights. It was determined by the court that since the evidence was not disclosed, Al-Najjar could not adequately defend himself.

Al-Najjar said Wednesday afternoon he would be surprised if the May 31, 2000 decision that ruled in his favor was reversed.

“I believe the chance that it will be overturned is weak,” Al-Najjar said. “They’re using the hysteria from the aftermath of Sept. 11.”

But J. Edwin Benton, a USF political science professor, said, in a time like this, the chance of the court reversing the decision is greater than Al-Najjar thinks.

“In light of (the Sept. 11 attacks), the chances it will be overturned is more likely,” said Benton.

Al-Najjar said the process of overturning the decision, which could subsequently land him back in jail if the Justice Department again uses the secret evidence they said made Al-Najjar a national security threat in 1997, is not a simple task.

“This matter is simply constitutional,” Al-Najjar said. “You can’t change the Constitution without amendments.”

Benton said he has a point, but since Al-Najjar is an illegal alien under deportation, he is not afforded the same rights.

“People who are resident aliens don’t have the same rights,” Benton said. “They operate under more restrictive rules.”

Al-Najjar said that in addition to the court ruling that set him free last year, President George W. Bush has addressed the issue and said it was wrong to detain someone based on secret evidence.

But Benton said he wouldn’t be surprised if government attorneys found more sympathy from Bush, Congress and the American public should the court choose to overturn the decision. He said the courts are influenced by the events that surround them.

“The courts are not totally immune to American politics and could be more understanding of the government’s reason for appeal,” Benton said. “I’m not an attorney, but I wouldn’t want to be in (Al-Najjar’s) shoes (today).”

Al-Najjar’s brother-in-law is Sami Al-Arian, a USF professor also accused of having terrorist connections. Both men worked together at USF in the early ’90s at the now defunct Middle Eastern think tank, World and Islam Studies Enterprise, which Al-Arian founded. Al-Arian said the group was created to promote peaceful dialogue between Islam and the West. But when he and his organization were accused on national TV in September of being an operative for the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Al-Arian was placed on paid leave by the university.

PIJ is run by Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, another former WISE member and former USF adjunct professor. Shallah became leader of the group six months after he left Tampa in 1995.Though Al-Najjar has spent time in prison and Al-Arian has been investigated by the FBI, neither has ever been charged with a crime.

Al-Najjar, who came to the United States in 1981 on a student visa, was arrested for overstaying that visa, and he and his wife were placed under deportation in 1997.

However, Al-Najjar and his wife, Fedaa, have been in a holding pattern for four years as no country will accept them because of the public allegations made against Al-Najjar.

“I have no national rights anywhere in the world,” Al-Najjar said. “We have never had any national rights anywhere.”

He said while he was in jail, he applied for and received a visa that would allow him to go to Guyana in South America where he could work with Muslim communities and get a fresh start on life. He said, however, that the government would not let him leave, which proved to him that they had a motive.

“The real intention was not to detain and deport me,” he said. “It was to punish me and make me a case for other communities and other activists.”

Al-Najjar, who has three young daughters, said the past few months have been particularly hard for him and his family. “I’m not really keeping them in the dark, but I try not to involve them that much,” he said.

What lies ahead for Al-Najjar is unknown at this point. However, Benton said should the decision be overturned, the court would be making a bold statement: Government agencies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Service should be given more discretion and leeway in times when national security is vulnerable.

This, in effect, would echo new anti-terrorism legislation passed Sept. 14 that gives Bush the authority to use “necessary and appropriate” force against anyone he determines to be tied to the Sept. 11 attacks. The new law also states that the same action can be taken on anyone who harbored similar terrorist organizations or people in order to prevent further attacks.

  • Contact Ryan Meehanat oracleryan@yahoo.com