Testimony Given by Nahla A. Al-Arian to the Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims of the House Judiciary Committee.
Thursday, February 10, 2000
Good morning Mr. Chairman, the Honorable Lamar Smith, Ranking member, the Honorable Sheila Jackson-Lee, and Honorable members of this sub-committee.
My name is Nahla Al-Arian and I'm a proud American citizen of Palestinian descent. I'm also a mother of five and the proud sister of Dr. Mazen Al-Najjar, who has been deprived of his freedom for almost 1000 days now, because of the use of secret evidence.
On May 19, 1997, Mazen was handcuffed in front of his three young daughters and taken to a detention facility for supposedly a visa violation. The FBI and INS agents who arrested him brought with them a photographer from a local newspaper, so his picture with his hands cuffed would be published on the first page the next morning. We thought that he would be released on bail in a day or two, like thousands of other similar cases. However, our hopes were quickly dashed when the government used secret evidence against him.
We subsequently found out that my brother was first taken to the FBI office in Tampa, where he was offered by them residency and citizenship if he would "cooperate" and act as an informant. My brother said that he was a researcher and an academic and was not in the line of working as an FBI informant. Then they told him that he would be punished and would not get bail. At first, they said that he was a flight risk. When they were told that he had no place to go, they said that they would use secret evidence. The immigration Judge in the hearing said that my brother is respectable socially, religiously, and professionally and has strong family and community ties. He then continued that had it not been for the secret evidence, he would have granted him bail.
Needless to say, it was impossible for my brother to defend himself against these Kafkaesque proceedings. He was denied the right to face his accusers, to cross-examine them, and to present evidence on his behalf that would establish his innocence. It was like fighting ghosts. There have been numerous examples that proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that when the so-called evidence is cross-examined, the defendant was easily able to dismiss it. The cases of Hani Kaireldeen and Naser Ahmad, who both were imprisoned on secret evidence and subsequently freed after 19 and 43 months respectively, are just two examples of how this process is flawed. They were easily able to defend themselves even when they obtained part of the secret evidence that was used against them. It should also be noted that the overwhelming number of victims of secret evidence cases are Muslims and/or Arabs. The former CIA director, the Honorable James Woolsey, noted this prejudice in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee in July 1998.
When my parents learned of my brother's incarceration, they were deeply affected, to say the least. My mother's health, in particular, has suffered since. She frequently breaks into tears when she remembers the horrible situation my brother and his family are in. My parents always had high hopes that Mazen, their eldest son, will be there to support them in their old age. Unfortunately, they are now faced with taking care of their son and supporting his family. The pain they feel when they visit their educated, respectable, kind, and loving son in the detention facility he is kept in cannot be described.
Two weeks ago, I took my 66-year-old father to attend the oath ceremony, in which he became a citizen of this great country. On that joyous occasion, my father and I felt sad that my brother, Dr. Mazen Al-Najjar, could not be with us to celebrate one of the happiest days in his father's life.
Everyone who knows Mazen knows that he is a very peaceful man, who has never been charged with anything, not even a traffic violation. Believing in the principles of freedom and democracy our country upholds, he was eager to come here to continue his higher education and be a benefit to the society.
On December 11, 1981, while I was giving birth to my second child, Mazen arrived in the U.S., and hence I was reunited with my older brother, who has always been a source of wisdom, guidance, and knowledge, not only to me but also to everyone around him. As a pastor to his mosque, Mazen was always there to help and comfort those in need, and to establish tolerance and understanding between the Muslim community and the society at large. As a scholar, Mazen pursued his education and received his masters and doctor of philosophy degrees in Industrial Engineering and Management. In addition, Mazen played an important role in the academic world by establishing a dialogue between Muslim and Western scholars. He was also a teacher at the University of South Florida and was loved dearly by all his students. A. Engler Anderson, who is a Jewish journalist and a former student of my brother, has recently written an article in which he said: "I emphasize that during my association with him, Mazen showed nothing but the highest degree of respect for Judaism and Jewish culture. As somebody who spent more than four years of his life as a yeshiva bachur, studying Talmud, codes, Jewish philosophy and Chasidic literature, I am clearly in a position to make that assessment." (attached article enclosed). Over 30 editorials and columns have condemned the use of secret evidence and have called on the government to abolish this un-American procedure. (see articles attached.)
Nonetheless, Mazen's most rewarding achievement was in raising his three beautiful American-born daughters: Yara (11), Sara (9), and Safa (4 ½). Mazen's unfair detention was devastating to these young girls psychologically, emotionally, and academically. They have been traumatized by this horrible experience. During the 1000 days of Mazen's unjust incarceration, they were only allowed to hug him 4 times! This, my brother told me was the hardest thing in this ordeal- the fact that "his daughters have to live almost like orphans." When he was taken away, his youngest daughter, Safa, who was barely 2 years old at the time, refused to eat dinner for many days without her father's presence. She told her mom she was waiting for her dad to come home. The middle child, Sara, had nightmares for weeks, while the oldest, Yara, had withdrawal symptoms that affected her personality and behavior. Mazen's daughters are growing up father-less, during a time in their lives when they need him most. Why should three innocent little girls be deprived of their father's love and guidance, when he has committed no crime? When they ask why their father isn't with them and what secret evidence means, we, family members and friends, find ourselves trying to explain the unexplainable. To these girls and to all of us, the use of secret evidence that deprives the accused of the right to face the accusation against him and the accusers is unconscionable. This is what happens in far-away places but not here, we all thought. President Clinton, on June 29, 1998, chastised the Chinese at the University of Beijing because of their use of secret proceedings. How can we lecture others about this despicable act while we practice it here at home? It is inimical to the universal principle of human rights. My brother, for the past 1000 days, has lost his freedom without being charged with a single crime! Other victims such as Dr. Anwar Haddam in Virginia, Dr. Ali Karim in California, as well as many others across the nation have fallen victims to this unconstitutional practice. Each victim was snatched from his family to live an unending nightmare. We can expect this to happen in a totalitarian regime, but not here, not in America, the land of the free, and home of the brave.
Mazen is now faced with living in an entirely different environment. The detention facility he stays in is a place where 16 inmates share a cell, the single toilet has a half-wall for privacy, and the food is inadequate, especially since Mazen is diabetic. It gets especially difficult for Mazen, a religious and pious man, during the Holy month of Ramadan, a time in which Muslim families, and the community as a whole, spend time together.
Mazen has spent three Ramadans in such intolerable conditions. How would you react if you were told that a priest or a rabbi had spent three Christmases or three Yom Kippurs in detention without committing any crime?
As a Palestinian refugee, without a country to call his own, my brother Mazen believed very strongly in this country. With its great constitution and principles, he thought he would never be a victim of discrimination. But the use of secret evidence is discriminatory in nature, for if Mazen were a citizen, like his daughters and many members of his family, it would be impossible to use secret evidence against him. Discrimination, fear, and suspicion are what our children see and deal with nowadays. Muslim women in the U.S., not in Afghanistan, not under the Taliban, feel their rights to be with their loved ones are violated because of this inhumane practice. We teach our children that America is a land that guarantees the freedom of expression, religion, and association, and where the right of due process is made sacred by the constitution. All these constitutional rights are today threatened by the abuse of secret evidence.
There is an erroneous misconception that Mazen could leave this country whenever he pleases and that this whole ordeal could be over. Or as some in the government would like to say that "my brother holds the key to his chains." Nothing is further from the truth. As a stateless Palestinian refugee, he has no citizenship or residency in any country in the world. In fact he has no passport from any country. He can't go back to his birthplace in Gaza. The Palestinian authority says the Oslo accords don't allow him. We contacted Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, to name a few, but none was willing to take him. Moreover, no other country would take Mazen after the government permanently damaged his reputation. In December, 1998, we obtained a visitor visa to Guyana, in South America, which upon hearing that he was detained on secret evidence demanded to know what the secret evidence was, or they would withdraw the visa. When the U.S. government refused to share the secret evidence, they withdrew the visa. Indeed, he has lived in America for the past 18 years of his life, and this is where he belongs. This is the only country that his daughters can call home, and he has strong family and community ties here.
In April 1998, I came with a group of church leaders from Tampa, Florida, to talk to some officials at the Justice Department about my brother's predicament. Unfortunately, their hearts were not softened by our pain and suffering. But countless fair-minded men and women of this great land offered their support in this struggle for justice. The support and love in the Tampa community and the public support we have received, have enriched our lives and taught all of us the true meaning of humanity and how to love thy neighbor.
I would also like to extend my gratitude and appreciation to the original co-sponsors in the House of Representatives for sponsoring the initiative to ban the use of secret evidence, HR 2121, the Hon. David Bonior, the Hon. Tom Campbell, the Hon. John Conyers, and the Hon. Bob Barr, and also to the 59 other Congressmen and women who have since joined the effort to repeal the use of this shameful procedure. For the past 8 months, my husband and I have talked to many lawmakers here in Congress. We are extremely grateful for livivig in an open political system that allows us to freely express our point of view and have access to address our concerns to the highest people in power in our country. This is what's great about America and we must keep it as the beacon of freedom and democracy.
Mr. Chairman, President Dwight D. Eisenhower told us that nations remain great so long as they are good. On that note, I would like to urge every Congressman and woman to support the Secret Evidence Repeal Act (H.R. 2121). Your vote is a vote for your conscience, for the Constitution, for the future generations, and above all for this great country. As long as my brother and others like him are imprisoned unjustly, a huge part of our lives will be missing. We are crying out for justice- but who will hear our cries?
May God protect us all. May He guide us to the straight path and in the support of true justice. And may He bless our country.
Thank you very much.