It has been an unusual seven years for Mazen Al-Najjar.
The former USF adjunct professor fell under the scrutiny of federal investigators in 1996 for alleged ties with terrorist organizations.
In 1997, he was arrested and held on the basis of secret, unreleased government documents. After a stay in prison that lasted more than three years, he was released in December 2000.
His freedom, however, was shortlived as Immigration and Naturalization Services officials arrested Al-Najjar in November of 2001 to be held for deportation. No country has been willing to accept him.
And now Al-Najjar, who turned 45 on Tuesday, sits in the Coleman Federal Detention Facility in Sumter County awaiting the next of his many legal maneuvers.
This week’s birthday was for him his fifth in six years behind bars, and it fell on his 1,500th day in prison.
With these personal milestones in mind, the Tampa Bay Coalition for Justice and Peace will travel the 75 miles to the prison Friday to engage in a rally calling for his release.
USF student Layelle Saad will be among the protesters. She said the group hopes to influence those who are holding Al-Najjar.
“We’re doing it basically for the media, because nobody else is going to be out there,” Saad said. “And we’re doing it for brother Mazen, as well. We want to tell him we care about him by making the trip out there.”
Saad said she feels Al-Najjar should be released because he has not committed a crime.
“I think it’s totally unconstitutional,” she said. “It’s secret evidence at first and now no evidence at all. This is not what our country is based on.”
The coalition is affiliated with the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom based out of Washington, D.C. The former head of the Tampa Coalition is ousted USF professor Sami Al-Arian, who is also Al-Najjar’s brother-in-law.
The coalition, as do other groups in support of Al-Najjar, point to the six-month rule as the reason why he should be released. According to the rule, any immigrant held by the INS for deportation must be sent out of the country within six month or released. An inmate may be retained, however, if a judge rules there is a substantial danger to the community from his release.
Al-Najjar has been in prison about six and a half months, and a court date has not been set. Fedaa Al-Najjar, his wife, said she will attend the rally, and that she wants her husband released.
“Mazen is supposed to get out of jail. This is the law,” Mrs. Al-Najjar said. “Mazen staying in jail more than six months is illegal.”
The district office of the INS, located in Miami, has referred inquiries on Al-Najjar to the justice department. Dan Nelson, who works in the office of public affairs at the justice department, did not return repeated phone calls.
In addition, the Board of Prisons has refused to grant any media contact with Al-Najjar. The reason the BOP provided for its decision was that such contact would result in “a safety and security concern.”
But the INS did announce that on June 12 it will hold a hearing at the Coleman prison to review Al-Najjar’s detention. Martin Schwartz, one of Al-Najjar’s attorneys, said the hearing could mean a release order without having to go to court.
“The INS could decide he’s not a danger to society,” Schwartz said. “(But) those types of custody reviews are done for people with criminal records. So a customs review is not appropriate. I don’t know what the INS has in mind for a noncriminal.”
Mrs. Al-Najjar said she isn’t sure what is going to happen but is prepared to go to court. Saad said she thinks there is a chance for the release.
“I hope for the best, you know. I can’t say either way, because we’ve been disappointed in the past,” Saad said. “I have to have faith, I guess.”
Schwartz, who said he will attend Friday’s rally, said if the INS rules against Al-Najjar, he will await a court date. He said he’s surprised Judge Joan Leonard has yet to post a date.
“I expect to hear from her anytime,” he said. “(But) I tell you why she hasn’t set a hearing yet. The government asked for an extension to submit their legal briefs. Probably once the government submits their legal briefs, she’ll set a date.”
Leonard has a history in this case. According to a coalition statement, Leonard ruled in 2000 that Al-Najjar had not received due process in his bail hearing. It was this ruling that eventually led to his brief release in 2001.
But, Mrs. Al-Najjar said, as she awaits a court date, the present goal is take her husband’s message to the public and attempt to rally support. Mrs. Al-Najjar said she and the coalition are urging as many protesters as possible, and she said she is confident her husband will be home soon.
“We are going to court,” Mrs. Al-Najjar said. “I think (the judge) is going to rule against the INS.”