Temple Terrace, Florida
"The government destroyed my life," Mazen Al-Najjar said with both anger and wonder. "Slandered me with secret evidence. And all that time, they were after the wrong man. While I was in jail, the terrorists were loose."
A few days before Thanksgiving Al-Najjar sat across a coffee table from me, explicating the relationship between T.S. Eliot and contemporary Palestinian poetry, repeating a Ramadan joke he'd heard at his mosque the night before, pensively analyzing what he called the "terrible crime" of September 11 and how its perpetrators could best be fought. But mostly Al-Najjar talked about the three and a half years he spent in jail, based on still-secret evidence alleging terrorist associations. He stayed locked up until a no-nonsense federal judge declared his detention unconstitutional in May 2000, and an immigration judge, in a new and more fair proceeding, declared the charge unfounded and last December ordered his release. Neither of us had an inkling that just a few days later, Mazen Al-Najjar would end up as one of the post-September 11 "disappeared."
On the morning of November 24, Al-Najjar left his apartment near the University of South Florida, where he used to teach, to get quarters for the laundromat. His wife was at work, his three daughters still in bed. Federal agents arrested him. A Justice Department press release, repeating the same allegations that had been thrown out of court last year, described his arrest as an effort to "address terrorism by using all legal authorities available."
I sought out Al-Najjar before his unexpected second incarceration because the case of this Gaza-born, US-educated PhD is a bellwether challenge to the constitutionality of secret-evidence antiterrorism trials. He had attracted supporters ranging from Republican Congressman Bob Barr to Democrat David Bonior. Yet here was Al-Najjar arrested again, once more labeled a terrorist, locked up for yet another Ramadan. Has the Justice Department uncovered new evidence linking him to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the group he was once accused of aiding? Or to the September 11 plot?
According to the Justice Department, there is no new evidence. Al-Najjar's latest arrest is ostensibly on technical grounds. Although freed by court order of terrorism charges, he still is under a deportation order for overstaying his student visa. Although he is contesting that deportation (in mid-November he lost a case before the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which he plans to take to the Supreme Court), the INS may hold someone under a final deportation order for up to six months while it seeks to deport him–but only if he poses a danger to the community or a risk of flight, neither of which the INS has been able to establish.
But the visa issue is just a smokescreen. In fact, Al-Najjar's latest detention appears to be the leading edge of an alarming strategy by John Ashcroft's Justice Department to resuscitate and expand secret-evidence trials and to prepare the way for the imprisonment of noncitizens for virtually unlimited terms.