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Not guilty of explosives charge, Megahed faces deportation trial next week

TAMPA — Youssef Megahed celebrated victory four months ago when a federal jury in Tampa acquitted him of explosives charges in a case that raised suspicion of terrorism.

The nightmare he and his family endured for nearly two years had ended — but not for long.

Three days after the not-guilty verdicts April 3, U.S. immigration officials whisked Megahed away to face deportation.

The American Civil Liberties Union decried the immigration charge as vindictive. The Council on American-Islamic Relations called it a slap in the face. The arrest angered enough jurors who spent 21 hours deliberating after the two-week criminal trial that they spoke out and labeled it "fundamentally wrong."

Megahed's fate now hangs in the hands of an immigration judge in Miami-Dade County. On Monday, deportation proceedings begin there at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Krome Detention Center.

"If there is justice here, they must keep him with his family," said Megahed's father, Samir, who became a U.S. citizen Friday with his wife and oldest son. "Youssef will fight deportation until the end."

Family, consulate officials from Egypt, where the Megaheds are from, and other supporters plan to attend the latest legal fight. They've been there from the beginning, when Megahed, 23, and Ahmed Mohamed, 28, were arrested in Goose Creek, S.C., on Aug. 4, 2007.

A deputy stopped the then-University of South Florida engineering students for speeding and found PVC pipes filled with a potassium nitrate mixture. Mohamed described them as homemade sugar rockets. Federal investigators called them low-grade explosives, which could be readily assembled into a destructive device with other materials found in the trunk.

Mohamed pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists and received 15 years in prison. FBI agents found a laptop in the car that showed Mohamed had posted a YouTube video telling how to turn a child's toy into a detonator.

Megahed maintained his innocence and won two not-guilty verdicts on charges 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 convicted.

Double jeopardy doesn't apply to this case. Immigration proceedings are civil, not criminal like the federal trial.

But that doesn't make it any easier for those involved.

"Youssef is a good man. He understands that the government has a right to charge anybody with anything that they want to," said Charles Kuck, an Atlanta immigration lawyer who is representing Megahed in the deportation case free of charge. "The government can pursue him likely based on the ground of vengeance."

• • •

The government's job is clear: Prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that Megahed has or will engage in terrorist activity.

That evidence doesn't exist, said Adam Allen, a public defender who represented Megahed at the Tampa trial.

"Based on all the evidence that I saw on the criminal case and all the exhibits that the immigration prosecutors intend to introduce," Allen said, "there simply is no evidence that Youssef ever participated in any terrorist activity or that there is any likelihood he would in the future."

Kuck said the allegations against Megahed amount to Internet searches for Qassam rockets launching in the Middle East and evidence that "he was a passenger in a car with materials that can be made into a bomb."

Some of the evidence Kuck expects prosecutors to use will show that Megahed visited 30 such Internet sites in eight minutes. He doesn't expect them to put it into context.

Kuck noted that a log of that same computer activity showed Megahed had also spent an hour on Facebook.

Allen said he has told Megahed's family to have faith that the truth will come forward in Miami as it did in Tampa.

"If it doesn't, it's an unfortunate miscarriage of justice," Allen said.

• • •

Terry Christian, a Tampa lawyer and former immigration judge, said the government has the burden to prove that Megahed should be deported. Prosecutors must submit all their evidence and documents they plan to use in advance, which may help the defense, he said.

"You can almost tell what's going to happen in advance of a hearing," Christian said.

That isn't always the case.

St. Petersburg immigration lawyer Arturo Rios Jr. said rules of evidence are lax in immigration court. The standard for whether something is admissible is that it be fundamentally fair and not prejudicial, he said.

There's also a clause that allows the government to keep evidence secret, even from the defendant, by claiming it's in the interest of national security.

"I'll bet they played that card to the hills in this case," Rios said.

Nonetheless, the evidence must be relevant, which means prosecutors can't use materials against Mohamed, the co-defendant in the criminal case.

"These immigration trials are all about the lawyers," Rios said. "It really is like Lincoln in the old days. He won his trials because he could out-lawyer the other side."

In immigration court, the judge also serves as a jury of one.

"A lot of people will argue that it's not fair to immigrants," Rios said. "I think it's easier to convince one than to convince six."

Kenneth S. Hurewitz, an immigration judge since 1996, is assigned to Megahed's case.

"He's one of the best immigration judges in the state and one of the finest I've ever appeared before," Rios said. "He's truly impartial. He won't let the ICE prosecutors get away with any more than he will let the defense get away with."

Rios predicts the case will go to an appeal no matter who wins.

"This is not the end of the story," Rios said. "This is going to be Part 2 of what could go all the way to the Supreme Court."

Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

FAST FACTS

Events in the case

Aug. 4, 2007: Youssef Megahed and Ahmed Mohamed arrested in Goose Creek, S.C.

Aug. 29, 2007: Both are charged with transporting explosive material illegally. Mohamed is charged with demonstrating how to make explosives. The University of South Florida suspends them as students.

April 16, 2008: New indictment adds charges, including firearms violations, against both men.

May 5, 2008: Megahed is freed on bail.

June 13, 2008: In a deal, Mohamed pleads guilty to one count of providing material support to terrorists.

Dec. 18: Mohamed is sentenced to 15 years.

April 3: A federal jury acquits Megahed of illegal transportation of explosive material and illegal possession of a destructive device.

April 6: Immigration officials arrest Megahed for deportation.

Monday: Megahed's deportation trial begins near Miami.

Not guilty of explosives charge, Megahed faces deportation trial next week 08/14/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 5:43pm]

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