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Nowhere to go

Holiday lights adorning Mazen Al-Najjar’s Tampa mosque would not light Saturday. It was as symbol that they could sense his absence, surmised his sister Nahla Al-Arian.

Al-Najjar, a former USF adjunct professor, is back in jail after being arrested Saturday by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The arrest comes on the heels of a ruling of final deportation upheld by the 11th Circuit United States Court of Appeals on Nov. 15.

But Al-Najjar, a stateless Palestinian, has nowhere to go.

He was first ordered deported in 1997 after his student visa expired. He was jailed for three years and seven months on secret evidence that the government said linked him to terrorism and made him a national security threat.

He was released in December 2000 after Judge Joan Lenard ruled that it is unconstitutional to jail someone based on secret evidence. Al-Najjar was not given due process and, therefore, could not adequately defend himself.

That ruling is being appealed in a Miami district court by the federal government, but a three-judge panel has not yet decided whether to uphold Lenard’s decision.

Al-Arian said no one has heard from Al-Najjar since his arrest and she worries for his safety.

“We were hoping he would call like last time,” Al-Arian said. “I just think that this time he is not allowed. But we are all very anxious to hear his voice.”

She said she was concerned because she doesn’t know much about the Federal Correctional Institution at Coleman, the jail where he is being detained 70 miles north of Tampa. She said the last time he was in jail, he was held in a facility meant for temporary incarceration but spent nearly four years there.

“We don’t even know where he is,” Al-Arian said. “All they told us was that he was at Coleman near Gainesville. That’s all the knowledge we have now.”

Another concern she had was whether the prison would respect Al-Najjar’s observation of Ramadan, which started on Nov. 16 and involves thirty days of fasting, in which he can only eat after the sun goes down.

Dan Nelson, public information officer for the U.S. Department of Justice, said he could not comment on the details of the case.

“All I can say is the government is making arrangements for (Al-Najjar’s) deportation, and I can’t give a time frame on when this case will be settled,” Nelson said.

The Department of Justice said in a statement Saturday that Al-Najjar was arrested “not based on classified evidence” that put him in jail four years ago but on visa violations that made him ineligible for any form of relief.

The statement goes on to say that Al-Najjar “was responsible for petitioning for other known terrorists to obtain visas to enter the United States.”

The statement also addressed Al-Najjar’s involvement in World and Islam Studies Enterprise, the Middle Eastern think tank. It was created by his brother-in-law Sami Al-Arian, a USF professor who is on paid leave after appearing on a nationally televised talk show in late September that reintroduced allegations that the think tank was a front for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

PIJ is a terrorist organization based out of Syria and is currently headed by Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, a former USF adjunct professor and former WISE member.

The statement described WISE as an organization that raised money for militant Islamic-Palestinian groups such as PIJ and Hamas.

The statement, however, contrasts an October 2000 ruling by Immigration Judge R. Kevin McHugh. McHugh said in his ruling there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove that Al-Najjar raised money for terrorist organizations.

He also said there was no evidence to prove that WISE served as a front for PIJ, but said there was evidence that WISE was a “reputable and scholarly research center.”

David Cole, one of Al-Najjar’s attorneys, said Sunday the INS can hold Al-Najjar for 90 days. After the 90-day period, Al-Najjar could stay incarcerated if the government determined he was a threat to national security or a risk of flight.

“We are certainly going to try to get him out before (the 90-day period expires),” Cole said. “We might ask the district director to reconsider or seek a habeas review.”

Al-Najjar is a stateless Palestinian and was denied a visa to the United Arab Emirates, the country in which he was last a citizen. He has said before that he has “no national rights anywhere in the world.”

The last time Al-Najjar was in jail, he applied for and received a visa to go to Guyana, South America, but Cole said government officials met with Guyana government officials and convinced them to deny Al-Najjar refuge in their country.

“It’s not unusual. This happens to stateless people,” Cole said. “He’s in a situation of legal limbo – ordered deported with nowhere to go.”

For Nahla Al-Arian, the future of her brother is up in the air, as is the future of his wife and three young daughters who are also under an order of deportation.

“It’s a fear of the unknown,” Nahla Al-Arian said. “Everything is so gloomy. I saw his van parked in front of his apartment (Sunday), and I cried.”

Sami Al-Arian, Nahla’s husband, said his brother-in-law left his apartment to get quarters at a gas station so he could do laundry.

Al-Arian said the INS seized Al-Najjar just outside his apartment, where his three daughters were sleeping. He said Al-Najjar’s children didn’t know their father was arrested until Al-Arian, who received notification from the INS, went to the apartment and told the children.

“The children are devastated,” Sami Al-Arian said. “And we have totally lost confidence in the system.”

  • Contact Ryan Meehanat oracleryan@yahoo.com