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Palestinian Released From Fla. Jail

December 15, 2000

BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) _ A Palestinian was released from jail and walked into the arms of his weeping family Friday, after being locked up for three years on secret government evidence without being charged with a crime.

``It’s a great day for justice and a sad day for arrogance and oppression,″ Mazen Al-Najjar told a crowd outside the Manatee County Detention Center.

Attorney General Janet Reno had earlier lifted a stay that had kept Al-Najjar behind bars. In an accompanying statement, Reno said that Justice Department officials ``anticipate he could be deported from the United States soon.″

The government has maintained that Al-Najjar had links to Mideast terrorists and was a threat to national security. Al-Najjar denied the allegations. Not even his lawyers have seen the evidence against him.

Al-Najjar’s wife, Fedaa, grabbed him around the neck, hugging and kissing him in a long embrace. He then picked up and hugged his three daughters, Yara, 12, Sarah, 10 and Safa, 5. Tears rolled down the face of his sister, Nahla Al-Arian.

``I hope this is the end of the nightmare,″ Al-Najjar said.

Al-Najjar is among about 20 immigrants, mostly Arab-Americans, held in U.S. jails without criminal charges on classified evidence.

The 43-year-old academic had been on the verge of freedom several times, most recently Tuesday, when Reno stopped his release, saying she wanted more time to review the case. His family, stunned by the news, had been waiting at the detention center with an $8,000 check to post his bail when the stay was issued.

Al-Najjar’s battle for freedom has been a seesaw struggle through immigration hearings, federal court proceedings and the high reaches of the Justice Department.

For the first three years of his imprisonment, Al-Najjar had been allowed only once-a-year visits from his American-born daughters. In June, he was allowed to begin seeing them weekly like the rest of his immediate family.

Immigration Judge R. Kevin McHugh had ordered Al-Najjar’s release early this month, saying the government failed to give him enough information to defend himself.

McHugh viewed the classified evidence in chambers and said that a declassified summary given to Al-Najjar was not sufficient to keep him behind bars. He set bail and Al-Najjar’s family made plans to bring him home.

However, the government appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals, which ordered Al-Najjar detained indefinitely, pending further study.

The board lifted the order earlier this week, and federal immigration attorneys immediately turned to Reno.

Al-Najjar’s cause has been championed by lawyers from Florida to New York, civil rights groups and members of Congress who consider his detention unjustified.

About a dozen immigrants, mostly Arabs living in America, have been detained in U.S. jails without criminal charges on the basis of classified evidence, according to Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich.

Cole, a Georgetown University law professor, said he has worked on 13 such cases and after much difficulty, all have been released.

``All are living peaceably without any undermining of national security,″ Cole said. He believes the government uses secret evidence not to protect national security, but when it knows its case would disintegrate if made public.

Al-Najjar was born in Gaza and raised in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He has been in the United States since 1981. His student visa expired years ago and he has been living illegally in this country.

He has appealed a deportation order, partly on grounds that because he has no homeland, he has nowhere to go. A federal appeals court hearing was set for Jan. 9.

Reno said the government expects the appellate court will uphold the deportation ``in the next few months.″

She defended the detention, saying courts have twice ordered Al-Najjar deported ``based solely on public record evidence.″

Al-Najjar was associated with the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, a think tank affiliated with the University of South Florida, and the Islamic Committee for Palestine, a group with a stated mission of fostering better understanding of Muslim issues.

The U.S. government maintained that the Florida organizations fronted for the Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for terrorist bombings in the Middle East.

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