Mideast Fundraiser Freed After Two Years in Jail
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
A federal court in California this week dealt a blow to the government's crackdown on immigrants with suspected terrorist ties. A federal judge ordered the release of Abdel-Jabbar Hamdan, the head of a mosque in Orange County, California. He'd been held without bond for two years after raising money for an Islamic charity the U.S. government considers a terrorist group. The judge ruled the government could not prove Hamdan is a threat to national security.
From member station KQED, Rob Schmitz reports.
ROB SCHMITZ reporting:
Abdel-Jabbar Hamdan says he feels like he's either in a dream or he's just awakened from a nightmare. For two years, he hasn't been able to hug or kiss his wife and six children, all born in the United States. Today, he's back home and his children are making up for lost time.
Mr. ABDEL-JABBAR HAMDAN: One after another, just - they keep on coming and kiss me, and then they go. I thought they are overdoing it, but they are not! They just - you know, they are afraid that maybe dad will, you know, somehow would open the door and leave and never come back.
SCHMITZ: That's exactly what happened two years ago when FBI agents entered Hamdan's home and arrested him. Hamdan, who was born in a Palestinian refugee camp, had a pending application for permanent residency. The day he was arrested, immigration officials denied his application, an immigration judge declared him a national security threat, and then ordered him held without bond.
That national security threat stems from Hamdan's work for an Islamic charity, The Holy Land Foundation. The government shut down the foundation in 2001, claiming it was raising money for terrorists. Hamdan says he was raising money for hospitals and orphanages. The government insists the money went to suicide bombers and to Hamas, a Palestinian group the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization. But last week, Hamdan went home to his family, released without bond.
Professor JONATHAN TURLEY (George Washington University): Judges are beginning to balk and to demand more evidence than the simple declarations from officials.
SCHMITZ: That's George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley. He's closely followed this case. He says the Hamdan case is part of a pattern where the government has detained immigrants it suspects of ties to terrorism on immigration charges because it lacks evidence to convict them in a criminal court where the standard of proof is much higher.
Prof. TURLEY: Moreover, a lot of these cases tend to be over the top. And I think Hamdan's is a great example of that.
SCHMITZ: Brian Jenkins agrees. He's a counter-terrorism expert at the Rand Corporation. He says the Hamdan ruling comes at a time when many federal judges are now questioning some overzealous government actions taken in the name of homeland security.
Mr. BRIAN JENKINS (Rand Corporation): We spent the last four and a half years scaring the hell out of ourselves and doing some things that we ought not to have done, which in the long run will only impede our efforts against terrorism. And we're now beginning to take some corrective steps.
SCHMITZ: In the meantime, the rest of the Holy Land Foundation's top officers await trial in Texas, a case that Turley calls equally troubling.
Prof. TURLEY: The evidence used against Holy Land Foundation would be laughable if it was not so disturbing.
SCHMITZ: Disturbing, says Turley, because the government shut down the organization partly based on secret evidence never shared with the foundation. Moreover, he and Holy Land's defense attorneys say much of that secret evidence comes from Israeli intelligence, what he calls a biased source.
The U.S. Department of Justice and Homeland Security officials refuse to comment on their cases against the Holy Land Foundation and Hamdan. In a legal brief filed this week, though, the department wrote that releasing Hamdan would, quote, signal to our allies that the U.S. permits its terrorist fundraisers to remain at large, unquote.
Former Immigration and Naturalization Service General Counsel David Martin agrees. He says there are times when the government should take action against individuals it suspects of terrorist links, especially if they're not U.S. citizens.
Mr. DAVID MARTIN (Immigration and Naturalization Service): There may well be times when it's quite appropriate to tip the balance in favor of societal safety. You still have to meet a certain standard of proof, but even if you don't have enough to put the person in jail on a criminal charge, it might be a very good idea to say they should leave the country, go back to their country of origin.
SCHMITZ: But George Washington's Turley says the government needs to make sure they have a very strong case before they go before the courts.
Prof. TURLEY: So I think what you're seeing in many of these cases courts really running out of patience.
SCHMITZ: In the meantime, Abdel-Jabbar Hamdan is re-adjusting to life with his family. He may have some time with them, as the appeal process in his immigration case is expected to be prolonged.
For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.