TAMPA — U.S. immigration officials descended upon the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store Monday and whisked away Youssef Megahed, apparently to face deportation proceedings, his attorney said.
Just four days ago, a federal jury acquitted the former University of South Florida student of explosives charges.
"We're completely disappointed with this action by the government," said Adam Allen, Megahed's public defender. "My understanding is that they have arrested him to seek to deport him based solely on the same grounds for which he was acquitted."
Megahed is a legal permanent resident of the United States. He and his family members have applied for citizenship.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman James Judge said Megahed was arrested for "civil violations of the Immigration and Nationality Act," releasing few details in a prepared statement.
"Mr. Megahed has been placed into removal proceedings and is being held in ICE custody pending the outcome of his case," Judge said. "He will have the opportunity to present the facts of his case before an immigration judge."
Samir Megahed said he and his son were in the store on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard when Allen called to summon them to his office immediately. They left a shopping cart of groceries and headed to the parking lot.
But it was too late.
Seven unmarked cars flanked the store entrance. Megahed and his father were surrounded by men. One thrust a piece of paperwork at the elder Megahed. Others grabbed his son.
"I told them, 'Please let him speak to his lawyer,' " Samir Megahed said.
He said he stood in the car's way, again insisting his son see his lawyer. The men ushered him out of the way, one showing him a blue wallet.
"They didn't show me their ID. No telephone numbers. No names. Only their strong bodies."
Friday, after 21 hours of deliberation, a federal jury acquitted Youssef Megahed of illegal transportation of explosive materials and illegal possession of a destructive device. He would have faced up to 10 years in prison on each count had he been found guilty.
'Slap in the face'
Monday started as a day of prayer and fasting for Megahed, in gratitude for the verdict, said Ramzy Kilic, executive director for the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. His family knew he would need to eat at sundown. They also worried that he had no money on him when he was picked up.
"It's a slap in the face," Kilic said of the arrest. "This already went through federal court."
Allen said he would help Megahed find an immigration lawyer.
"We feel confident he will prevail in that proceeding, similar to what he did in the courtroom here in Tampa," he said.
A co-defendant, Ahmed Mohamed, pleaded guilty to a federal charge last summer of providing material support to terrorists. He admitted creating and posting a YouTube video showing how to turn a child's toy into a detonator.
Mohamed said he intended the video to be used by enemies of the United States. In comparison, the 12-person jury viewed Megahed as Mohammed's unwitting passenger during the South Carolina traffic stop that led to indictments of both.
Lyann Goudie, one of Mohamed's attorneys, said Megahed's arrest "doesn't surprise me."
"Obviously, the lesson to be learned from the Sami Al-Arian debacle is if they can't get you one way, they're going to get you the other," Goudie said.
Al-Arian is a former USF professor who took a plea deal in February 2006 in Tampa after a jury acquitted him of eight counts of aiding terrorists and deadlocked on nine counts. He pleaded guilty to aiding associates of the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad with nonviolent immigration needs.
Tampa prosecutors agreed with Al-Arian's defense attorneys that he would be deported within a few months of signing the plea agreement. Instead, a federal judge sentenced him to 11 more months in prison. Then prosecutors in Virginia tried to force him to testify before a grand jury investigating an Islamic think tank and charged him with contempt for refusing.
Tampa immigration attorney John Ovink said he doesn't know why Megahed would be of interest to ICE but said the agency would have the authority to interview him about any suspected terrorist activity.
But, Ovink added, "you can't just go around the street picking up permanent residents saying, 'Well, we just want to talk to you about terrorism.' "
St. Petersburg immigration attorney Arturo Rios Jr. said the standard for immigration officials to detain someone on a terrorism charge is low.
"He doesn't have to have a conviction," Rios said. "They basically just feel they have a reason to believe that he was involved in this type of activity, and that's enough for them to go after him and bring deportation charges against him."
Mohamed's plea to providing material support to terrorists makes Megahed's case harder to win, Rios said, but not impossible.
"It's troubling that the government gets another bite of the apple on this issue," Rios said. "You figure if the poor guy has survived the gauntlet of a federal trial, which is as good as it gets in our legal system, you would think that was it. Now all of a sudden, you turn around and you have Goliath waiting on you."
Kevin Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3433.