TAMPA — Calling Youssef Megahed's arrest on immigration charges vindictive, local American Civil Liberties Union leaders sent a letter Monday urging Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to release him.
"A federal jury acquitted Mr. Megahed of all criminal charges. Now the government is trying to get another bite of the apple in immigration court," said Rebecca Steele, the ACLU's west-central Florida director.
Sending the letter is an unusual step for the ACLU of Florida, prompted by what Steele described as unusually vindictive behavior by the federal government.
"The facts seem very striking so far, that he's only being singled out for removal based, as far as we can tell, completely on what was already covered in his criminal case," Steele said.
Jurors acquitted Megahed on April 3 of illegal transportation of explosive materials and illegal possession of a destructive device. He could have gotten 10 years in prison on each charge if he had been convicted.
The former University of South Florida student's family says U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained Megahed on similar charges, though immigration officials have declined to discuss specifics of their case.
Ten years ago, the ACLU represented Mazen Al-Najjar, a Tampa man and legal immigrant who had been jailed on secret evidence and accused of ties to terrorists. His detention sparked legislation in Congress to ban the use of secret evidence.
Federal agents swooped down on a Wal-Mart parking lot April 6 and arrested Megahed, a legal permanent resident who has applied for citizenship, as he left the store with his father, Samir. He is being held at the Glade County Detention Center in Moore Haven.
"We give the government the chance to say everything in the court, and at the end of the day, the jurors say my son is not guilty," Samir Megahed said Monday at a news conference at the ACLU's downtown Tampa office. "I send this message to President Obama, that my son is not guilty. Why have they arrested him again?"
Samir Megahed said he's still looking for an immigration attorney to represent Youssef. One attorney said he could handle the situation in two weeks; another said it could take six years to get a resolution, the father said.
In a two-page letter to Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder, the ACLU cites an April 16 St. Petersburg Times story, where Megahed jurors expressed anger over his immigration arrest. Five jurors told the Times they felt disrespected by immigration officials who charged and arrested Megahed just three days after they acquitted him.
Immigration court doesn't recognize double jeopardy. Unlike the federal criminal case, Megahed's immigration proceedings are civil and administrative.
Regardless, the ACLU doesn't agree.
"This is really a slap in the face of the jury system," Steele said. "It may be legally and technically proper, but that doesn't make it right."
Megahed is scheduled for an immigration hearing on April 28.
Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.