MIAMI — Youssef Megahed returned to his family Friday after an immigration judge refused to deport him, ruling the Department of Homeland Security had failed to prove terrorism charges.
"I'm very happy for this," the former University of South Florida student told reporters, moments after walking beyond security gates of the Krome Detention Center and reuniting with relatives. "This was the only correct decision the judge could have made."
Megahed, 23, spent the last four months in immigration custody. His sudden release came after Homeland Security attorneys abandoned plans to ask that he be held while they consider appealing Immigration Judge Kenneth S. Hurewitz's decision to dismiss the case.
"I doubt they are going to do the appeal because they have a very weak case," Megahed said. "The truth has come out and this is all over."
He said he intends to return to Tampa, reapply to USF, and renew efforts to become a United States citizen.
Authorities detained Megahed for deportation three days after his acquittal in Tampa federal court in April on charges of illegal transportation of explosive materials and possession of a destructive device.
The FBI accused Megahed, Ahmed Mohamed and two other men of conspiring to form a terrorist cell. Mohamed pleaded guilty to a terrorist charge and is serving a 15-year sentence.
Karim Moussaoui, a USF graduate, was convicted of violating his student visa by posing for a picture with a rifle while visiting a gun range with Megahed. He received six months in prison and has been deported. Ahmad Ishtay, the fourth person in the alleged conspiracy, was never charged and fled the country.
For the last two years, Megahed has maintained his innocence. He and Mohamed were arrested Aug. 4, 2007, in Goose Creek, S.C., after a deputy stopped them for speeding and found PVC pipes filled with a potassium nitrate mixture in the trunk. Mohamed said they were homemade sugar rockets.
The traffic stop led to a federal investigation that revealed Mohamed posted a YouTube video demonstrating how to turn a child's remote control toy into a detonator, which was the basis for his terrorism charge.
"This is a very close case, but I don't believe the government has met its burden in this case," Hurewitz ruled Friday in Megahed's deportation proceedings.
The judge said he accepted the evidence against Megahed as fact. But it wasn't enough to convince him the Egyptian national has or is likely to engage in terrorist activity. Hurewitz plans to issue a written ruling explaining his decision within 30 days.
"I hope that they finish everything and let my son live his normal life here in America," said Megahed's father, Samir. "Please, let us, the Megahed family, live here in peace."
Megahed's parents and two brothers received their U.S. citizenship Aug. 14. His sister is scheduled to take an examination next month. Megahed, a legal permanent resident, hopes to become naturalized soon, too.
Charles Kuck, Megahed's attorney, plans to send U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services a letter next week asking that Megahed immediately be scheduled for a citizenship interview.
By Monday, Megahed must report to the immigration office in Tampa. Officials will decide whether to monitor him electronically during Homeland Security's potential appeal.
Megahed is also barred from having contact with any of the men cited in the FBI's conspiracy theory or visiting a Temple Terrace home where they all used to congregate. He did not have to post bail.
"Let's hope this is the end of a more than two-year ordeal which has turned the family upside down. But it's never broken their strength and their confidence," said Ramzy Kilic, executive director for the Tampa Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
From the start, Kuck called the government's evidence garbage and the accusations fantasy. He patted Megahed on the back then hugged him after Hurewitz dismissed the charges.
"It's rare that the government doesn't meet its burden in immigration court. But they didn't," Kuck said. There's nothing there."
Adam Allen, Megahed's public defender at the Tampa federal trial, attended some of the Miami proceedings for support.
"I think enough is enough," Allen said Friday. "Now 12 members of the community and a federal immigration judge have said the government evidence and all these allegations just aren't accurate. It's time for the government to leave Youssef Megahed alone."
Tampa attorney Terry Christian, a former immigration judge, applauded Kuck for challenging the government's accusations. "If you don't put the government's feet to the fire, you never know whether the government really has a case," he said.
St. Petersburg immigration lawyer Arturo Rios Jr. said Homeland Security shouldn't be faulted for doing its duty.
"At the end of the day, I'm sure their security concerns were genuine," Rios said. But he thought the case was weak.
"The theory of their case was guilty by association," said Rios. "In this country, it's not illegal to have bad friends."
Megahed was three credits from completing his engineering degree at the time of his arrest. He plans to return to USF. But first, he will spend time with his family celebrating Ramadan, which begins today at sunrise.