MAXWELL:  We see no evidence, but still he waits

4/26/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


“Orwellian.” “Kafkaesque.” Both terms describe a nightmarish immigration case being litigated in Florida. Imagine being in your home eating breakfast with your family, when U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service authorities charge in, handcuff you in front of your wife and children and drag you off to an unspecified location _ all without charging you with a crime.

Such an arrest occurred in Tampa on May 19, 1997. The victim, Palestinian refugee Mazen Al-Najjar, then a 40-year-old professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, has been in an INS holding facility since he was grabbed. Although he has not been charged with a crime, Al-Najjar has been denied bail based on “secret evidence” that supposedly connects him with Palestine Islamic Jihad, a notorious terrorist organization in the Middle East.

His troubles began in 1995 after newspaper articles suggested that the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE), a USF think tank that he managed, was a fundraising front for terrorists. Matters worsened after the head of Islamic Jihad was shot to death in the Mideast. Two days later, another Tampa Muslim, Ramadan Shallah, who had been an instructor at USF and a member of WISE, assumed leadership of Islamic Jihad.

For area anti-Muslim forces, Shallah’s new post confirmed suspicions that WISE was dangerous and prompted the university to officially investigate the group. Authorities had expected to uncover an active terrorist cell with a money trail leading from Tampa to Gaza City and the West Bank. But investigators found no such evidence.

Nevertheless, Al-Najjar remains in jail to this day, not formally charged. He is being held under a provision of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which Congress enacted in response to the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings.

Implemented to protect American citizens, the measure has had the unintended consequence of undermining some of the nation’s most cherished constitutional protections. The merits of Al-Najjar’s case aside, the anti-terrorism law lets the government use informant testimony or other forms of secret evidence to imprison and deport legal immigrants suspected of terrorism without letting the suspects cross-examine their excusers.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that aliens have the same rights of due process that thieves, drug traffickers and murderers enjoy. If the INS has incriminating evidence against Al-Najjar, he has a constitutional right to see it.

The Sixth Amendment states: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and the cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”

Obviously, U.S. citizens should expect the government to take all reasonable care to protect them from terrorism, both foreign and domestic. But that same government also has a duty to protect the constitutional rights of everyone _ even those in the minority whose ideas and religions the majority rejects.

Only last week was Al-Najjar granted an appearance in a Miami federal court to ask for his freedom on constitutional grounds. His attorneys argued that their client’s right to due process was violated. Judge Joan A. Lenard said she would decide upon further review.

To add insult to injury, witnesses say, Al-Najjar’s wife, children and supporters were treated harshly by federal agents and the judge. When, for example, the 11-year-old daughter took her seat and lowered her face into her hands, an officer yelled, “Put your head up.”

Al-Najjar was forced to wear the same unwashed clothes he wore upon arrest three years ago. He could speak to his attorneys for only a few minutes _ through a blurred glass partition. He was awakened at 1 a.m. in Bradenton for a hearing scheduled for 4 p.m. in Miami, a flight that took one hour.

In court, he appeared dirty and tired. In other words, federal authorities made the man look every bit the terrorist they are painting him to be. If evidence indicates that Al-Najjar has terrorist connections, he should be punished appropriately. If no such evidence exists, however, he should be released.