US political prisoner released to uncertain future in Lebanon

Dr Mazen al-Najjar’s history encapsulates the plight of the Palestinians: they are accused of everything, but nobody is prepared to listen to their story. Dr Najjar, 43 years old and a former instructor at the University of Southern Florida, was finally released on August 24. He spent nearly five years in US jails for no crime except that he was a Palestinian and that the zionists did not want him in the US. His ordeal ended when the government of Lebanon agreed to let him stay there after Bahrain revoked his visitor’s visa. Months of secret negotiations finally resulted in a deal that would enable Dr Najjar to leave the US.

His latest ordeal started on November 24, 2001, when he was arrested, less than a year after being released in December 2000 at the end of five years’ imprisonment. This time he was charged with overstaying his student visa. Dr Najjar and his wife had entered the US in 1981 to study, using Egyptian travel documents. It is fairly common for foreign students to overstay their visas, but since September 11 Muslims have become a special target. Hundreds of Muslims have been rounded up, beaten, humiliated and deported. Dr Najjar’s problem was that Egypt would not renew his travel documents, so he could not leave. The US insisted that another country must confirm that it was willing to take him before he could be released. The Muslims of South Africa arranged for him to go there, but without travel documents he could not leave the US. It was by the efforts of his father, a naturalized American citizen, who made arrangements with the Palestinian Authority to get him travel documents, that some progress was made.

Even after his release his mistreatment continued. Instead of being allowed to travel on a commercial flight he was flown in a chartered jet, escorted by US federal agents. Dr Najjar had to face more humiliation: the pilots insisted that he must be chained and shackled for the entire flight; a federal agent accompanied him even to the washroom. At Rome airport, while the pilots rested, the Italian authorities refused to allow him entry: he sat in the plane in sweltering heat for 25 hours, before the plane took off for Beirut. Fortunately the Lebanese authorities let him in on a tourist visa for six months; his sister lives in Beirut. From Lebanon he hopes to move to South Africa, once his family has joined him (his wife is also without travel documents, although the Egyptian government has now reportedly agreed to renew them).

Dr Najjar was first arrested in May 1997 and jailed on classified evidence that allegedly linked him to Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian group; he was never formally charged. The allegations were first made by Steve Emerson, who gained notoriety as a mouthpiece for Israel and has since been discredited as a scandalmonger. The US government tried to expel Dr Najjar on the basis of these allegations, without disclosing the evidence against him. All three of Dr Najjar’s children were born in the US and are, therefore, American citizens; both his parents are also naturalized American citizens. Yet all this was considered irrelevant: he was still to be treated as an alien. He was released after a federal judge ruled that his constitutional rights were violated by the US government’s refusal to divulge the evidence against him so that he could mount a defence. Last November a federal appeals court upheld a deportation order for overstaying the visa, and ordered his rearrest. In the post-September 11 atmosphere this was to be expected; the US authorities have arrested more than 1,200 people, all of them Muslims. Most turned out to be completely innocent; their only fault was that they had overstayed their visas. According to the latest US justice department announcement, the US is still holding 74 persons on visa-related charges.

Dr Najjar spent nearly six months in solitary confinement after he was arrested last November. He suffers from diabetes and his heart ailment has been made worse by his mistreatment. Savouring his newfound freedom in Lebanon, he said that he felt completely “at peace,” and showed no rancour or ill-will towards his captors. In fact he was very forgiving.

In the Middle Eastern media Dr Najjar is portrayed as a victim of US oppression, and his plight is likened to that of the larger Palestinian population. Given the brutality with which the zionists treat the Palestinians, the comparison is not far-fetched. The zionists do not want the Palestinians either in Palestine or in the US; they would rather they were scattered. Dr Najjar and his family would become another group of wandering refugees in distant lands, while the zionists continue to occupy Palestine and torment its people.