Dr Mazen al-Najjar: a prisoner of conscience speaks out after his release from jail

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Abul Fadl

Shawwal 21, 1421 2001-01-16

Occupied Arab World

by Abul Fadl (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 29, No. 22, Shawwal, 1421)

Dr Mazen al-Najjar, a former adjunct professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, was released from prison on December 15, 2000, after more than 3 and a half years in jail as a victim of the US’s notorious “secret evidence” system. His release came after an immigration judge ruled that the INS had failed to establish that he posed a threat to US national security. Shortly after his release, KHALIL OSMAN interviewed him for Crescent International.

Crescent International: To begin with, can you give us a brief biographical sketch? We have read so many press reports on your unjust incarceration. But beyond the prison experience, who is Mazen al-Najjar? Where do you come from and what did you do before the US immigration officials knocked on your door and took you away?

Dr Mazen al-Najjar: I was born in 1957 in Ghazzah City. Since that time, my family has actually lived in several places. We lived for about 13 or 14 years in Saudi Arabia, and then we moved to Egypt. I attended high school and college there between 1971 and 1979. From 1979 to 1981, I worked in the United Arab Emirates in the construction engineering field.

At the end of 1981 I came to the United States for graduate studies, and in 1984 I obtained my Masters’ in industrial engineering. Later on, I started my PhD in the same field. By 1994, I graduated with a PhD in industrial management and systems engineering. In 1991, I helped found the World and Islamic Studies Enterprise (WISE), and I continued to help in that project for several years. I was editor of WISE’s quarterly research journal,Qira’at Siyasiyyah [Political Readings]. And I helped in most of the research and other activities of that centre.

In later 1994 and early 1995, we started to be targeted by a negative campaign that was aiming actually to distort our work and our activities. It started with the documentary, or let’s say ‘un-documentary,’ by Steven Emerson titled “Jihad in America.” The campaign was continued by the Tampa Tribune in May 1995. There was a strong push for that campaign from the Israeli consul in Miami, who visited the newsrooms of a number of newspapers in Florida. The campaign was intensified in late 1995, when our former co-worker and director Dr Ramadan ‘Abdallah became the new leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad [Movement] in the Middle East. That led to more campaigns and more allegations against our work. The WISE bank account was frozen by the government and they also confiscated all our files, all our computer software, our documents and computer equipment as well, after executing a search warrant. Since that time WISE has been defunct.

CI: Can you tell us about the circumstances of your arrest in May 1997?

Dr al-Najjar: It came after a year trying to apply for a political asylum, after WISE became defunct. WISE had been my sponsor for legal permanent status. WISE had applied a petition for labour certification and visa approval for me to be a full-time executive director. A few months after WISE had become defunct, the INS [the US Immigration and Naturalization Service] moved to revoke both the labour certification and the visa approval. So I had no alternative but to apply for asylum. That was in February 1996. There were hearings, on maybe three occasions, to the end of 1996. On May 13, 1997, the immigration judge issued an order to deny my asylum application and to order me deported to the United Arab Emirates. Six days after that, on May 19, 1997, the INS issued a warrant to detain me without any bond.

CI: How about the treatment that you faced while in prison? I mean, how was it being in an American prison?

Dr al-Najjar: It was a local county prison that was contracted by the INS as a holding facility for people in immigration cases. The place is designed to hold people for no more than eleven months and twenty-nine days, the norm for county jails. But I stayed there three years and seven months.

CI: I know that the so-called “secret evidence” legislation which allowed the US government to incarcerate you and other immigrants, mainly Muslims...

Dr al-Najjar (interrupting): It does not exist. There is no legislation that allows the government to incarcerate people based on secret evidence. The only language that allowed the government to do that is some kind of vague language. It says that when an immigration judge presides over a case of custody (read: detention), he could consider any information presented to the court by the alien or by the INS. This is the only language that exists and it was actually expanded and interpreted to include or to allow classified information.

CI: How about the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act that was passed in 1996?

Dr al-Najjar: I don’t know how this can be instrumental. I know that in the regulations of the immigration law the only thing it says is that the immigration judge can consider any information presented to him by the alien or by the Service, by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. That’s the only language that exists to allow classified information. There is another section in the immigration law, known as Title V, or the Terrorist Alien Removal Act, and that is supposed to be actually implemented by a special court that was actually never convened. I was not taken to that court because it does not exist.

CI: In any case, were you able during your ordeal at least to infer or deduce, even by way of conjecture, let’s say, what the evidence used against you was?

Dr al-Najjar: It is hard to know because the unclassified summary with which we were presented in 1997 is only one sentence, one line actually. It says that the court was presented with classified evidence about the association of the defendant with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. That is the only thing we know about that evidence. We didn’t see any details. We did not receive any description of that evidence. We didn’t have enough notice. We didn’t know anything that would enable us to rebut such evidence.

CI: So they linked you to a so-called “terrorist organization”. But were they linking you to specific acts of “terrorism”?

Dr al-Najjar: No, they didn’t provide any details about any illegal activities. And they didn’t actually present any evidence of meaningful association or meaningful participation in illegal activities or terrorist activities. That was never presented.

CI: A stay on your order of release, submitted by US attorney general, Janet Reno, blocked your release briefly. Are you aware of the grounds on which Ms Reno based her stay of order?

Dr al-Najjar: Usually, when the INS wants to stop or stay the order of the immigration judge who has granted bond to a detained person, they ask for an emergency stay of order from the Board of Immigration Appeal (BIA). The BIA granted a 24-hour stay of order, and the next day extended the stay of order indefinitely. We filed an immediate complaint to the US District Court in Miami that has jurisdiction over my habeas corpus complaint. After a few days, the BIA lifted their indefinite stay of order and made it possible for me to post a bond to be released. But the INS actually petitioned the attorney general at the last minute to stay the order of the immigration judge and to do a review. The attorney general agreed, and by Friday December 15, at 1:00pm, that review was concluded and no more stay of order was granted. The attorney general allowed me to post a bond that afternoon.

CI: At about the same time, another “secret evidence” prisoner was also released: Dr Anwar Haddam of Algeria. In his case, his release will be reviewed within or after 45 days by the attorney general. Does that apply to you as well?

Dr al-Najjar: No, that’s a different case. He was granted asylum twice by immigration judges and that asylum order was upheld by the Board of Immigration Appeal. The attorney general wanted a 45-day review of that order to grant [Dr Haddam] asylum but he was actually released earlier than that. We don’t know what will happen after 45 days. It is likely that the decision of the immigration judges and the BIA will remain effective.

CI: Are you planning to sue the US government for the psychological and material damages inflicted on you?

Dr al-Najjar: I haven’t studied that option. My main focus now, my only focus actually, is on appealing the denial of my asylum application. I will continue to do that.

CI: In your opinion, what is at stake in the so-called “secret evidence” legislation? What is the impact of such legislation on enforcing justice and law and order in an ethnically diverse society that theoretically prides itself on the equality of its citizens before the law?

Dr al-Najjar: When I petitioned the US district court in Miami last year to issue a habeas corpus writ, or a habeas corpus order, to free my body from the physical restraint, we had actually four grounds to show that this was an unlawful and unconstitutional practice. One ground was the “due process” clause, the fifth amendment to the US constitution. That amendment says that every person is entitled to a due process. Of course, everyone understands that the US constitution is basically to guarantee people three main things: life, liberty and property. The general rule is that no life, no liberty and no property can be taken from anyone without a due process. The classified information presentation in my case, and it is known usually as ex parte and in camera, was in violation of the due process on the procedural aspect and on the substantive aspect. So that was one main ground.

The second ground includes the first amendment protection, because the first amendment guarantees freedom of association. No one can be considered guilty just for the mere association with anyone else. That was also granted by the court.

The third ground was that of hearsay. Hearsay is not enough to keep someone behind bars for several years. And the fourth ground was that the whole practice of using secret evidence to detain someone jeopardized the freedom of expression granted in the first amendment. The court responded agreeing two of these points, and the other two were not addressed because the initial two were enough for the court to invalidate both decisions, of the immigration court of 1997 and of the BIA of 1998. They were actually considered in violation of the constitution.

CI: What kind of support did you get, and from what quarters?

Dr al-Najjar: Mainly the initial support came from the local community, the local Muslim and Arab community, and a local coalition of churches known as HOPE, which stands for the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality. Later on, other organizations started to show interest in my cause, such as the American Muslim Council, the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, Amnesty International, and so on.

CI: In what ways has your imprisonment affected your life and your family’s life?

Dr al-Najjar: It has affected my life substantially, and not only the imprisonment, but the allegations and the slander I have been subjected to. It has destroyed my reputation and ruined my academic career. It has given me a very dark future, a very uncertain future. It has made me a pariah in the international community. I cannot go anywhere in the world; I cannot be accepted by any country in normal circumstances. So that is very devastating. The effect on my family is even worse. My family, and my children in particular, have had to live for over three years and a half as fatherless children, and they really suffered. The financial cost has also been very high on my family, my friends and my community. The damage is beyond any estimation.

CI: How does it feel to be back with your family and friends again?

Dr al-Najjar: I feel that the nightmare is at least partially over. It was a continuous nightmare. It has been a very long situation and I couldn’t see an end to it.

CI: Are there any last words or thoughts that you would like to express through Crescent International?

Dr al-Najjar: I would like to tell the immigrant Muslim and Arab communities that they need to focus substantially on the issue of civil rights and civil liberties. I hear now that there is a legal bill in Canada, for example, to introduce the use of secret evidence. I think that is very sad news for me and for everyone who cares for civil rights. And I think Canadian Muslims need to coordinate their efforts with all Canadians who believe in civil rights and who realize how damaging this will be for the constitution and for constitutional rights in Canada. Canada has a good record of civil rights. But the introduction of the use of secret evidence will weaken liberties, freeze the freedom of expression, and damage constitutional rights. It is very important for Muslims to join the movement to enhance and to promote civil rights and to be part of it, and to consider it a top priority, regardless of what they believe in terms of theology or in terms of iman and otherwise. These are very important things. They should understand that the enhancement of constitutional principles is always right and always good for everyone regardless of faith, regardless of background, regardless of ethnicities, regardless of anything else. This is very much an important lesson that they have to learn. And I hope that they don’t have to learn it from being exposed to unjust practices.

CI: Dr Mazen al-Najjar, on behalf of Crescent International, thank you very much and welcome back to freedom.

Dr al-Najjar: Thank you, and may Allah bless you.

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