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Relative of Al-Arian indicted

After a seven-year legal battle involving the use of secret evidence, immigration authorities deported Mazen Al-Najjar to Lebanon in 2002.

Now federal prosecutors want him back, according to an indictment released Tuesday.

Al-Najjar is the latest defendant named in a terrorism case that includes his brother-in-law, former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian.

The updated indictment accuses Al-Najjar of helping Al-Arian run the North American arm of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group considered responsible for more than 100 deaths.

Al-Najjar also faces perjury charges for allegedly swearing during an immigration court hearing that he was not affiliated with the PIJ, did not know any PIJ members and did not provide any support to the group.

Al-Najjar's former attorneys were perplexed about why federal prosecutors would file the charges now. The allegations stem mostly from the 1990s.

"It absolutely makes no sense to me why it would take so many years to indict someone," said Martin Schwartz, one of Al-Najjar's former attorneys. "That is a mystery to me."

Federal prosecutors had no comment on the new indictment. Prosecutors are allowed to update indictments, including adding charges and defendants.

The new indictment revises the one filed in February 2003 that accused Al-Arian and seven other men of supporting, promoting and raising funds for the PIJ. Neither the original indictment nor the new one accuses Al-Arian or Al-Najjar of carrying out any terrorist attacks.

Over the past decade, agents taped thousands of telephone conversations _ most of them in Arabic _ while they had Al-Arian and the other men under surveillance. Like the original indictment, the new one does not quote any of those tapes at any length. None of the tapes have been made public. The defense attorneys have begun questioning the accuracy of what the prosecutors say are on the tapes.

For the most part, the charges against the men remain the same. The new indictment provides additional details about how money the men allegedly raised was transferred between various bank accounts. It also lists more examples of violence carried out by the PIJ, including a 1989 attack in Israel that killed U.S. citizen Rita Levine and more than 10 other people.

Al-Arian also faces an additional charge of obstruction of justice. He is accused of providing false information at his bail hearing about the PIJ's role in the United States and about not knowing that Al-Najjar and others were members of the group.

Al-Arian, who is accused of being the leader of the North American faction of the PIJ, has denied all the charges. Like the other defendants, he has said that he is being prosecuted for holding pro-Palenstinian views.

"We don't understand why it has taken so long for the government to get its case in order," said Linda Moreno, one of Al-Arian's attorneys.

A former University of South Florida instructor, Al-Najjar was in jail on and off for about five years, being held on secret evidence that the government said linked him to terrorism.

Although never charged with a crime, he overstayed his student visa and was deported in August 2002 in what became a 48-hour, problem-plagued international odyssey.

At a cost of $139,000, the federal government chartered a private jet once used by pop star Britney Spears to fly the stateless Palestinian from Florida to Beirut. A month later he was deported from Lebanon to an undisclosed location. His wife joined him with their three children after she, too, was deported.

A year ago, family members said the Al-Najjars were living in "a nice Arab country" where Al-Najjar worked as a translator despite diabetes-related health problems.

The original indictment referred to Al-Najjar as "Unindicted Co-conspirator Twelve." The indictment stated that No. 12 advised Jihad leaders about organizational structure, finances and its relationship to other terrorist groups. The updated indictment formally puts a name to the number.

"The real question is, why are they doing it?" asked Schwartz, who lost contact with Al-Najjar after his deportation.

Nahla Al-Arian, who is Sami Al-Arian's wife and Al-Najjar's sister, said the government is trying to defame the family's fight against the use of secret evidence. She questioned why prosecutors didn't charge Al-Najjar when he was still in their custody.

She said she has not spoken to her brother about the indictment, and would only repeat that he and his family are safe in the same Arab country where they were living a year ago. He still works as a translator.

"This case becomes more and more political," said Nahla Al-Arian, who lives in Tampa. "That's why they brought my brother into this case. They don't have any case. They want to defame my brother and hurt my husband."

Bill West, who helped investigate Al-Najjar's case, said the indictment was justified, if a bit late.

"Notwithstanding Al-Najjar being deported, which was the best action the U.S. government could take at the time, his indictment validates years of hard work by investigators and prosecutors," said West, the retired chief of the National Security Section for the former Immigration and Naturalization Service in Miami. "Under better circumstances, the indictment would have come before the deportation."

Al-Najjar's indictment, though, might have less to do with Al-Najjar and more to do with Al-Arian, theorized former federal prosecutor Steve Crawford. Prosecutors might be hoping to provide jurors with a more complete picture of the alleged conspiracy, he said.

Evidence linked to unindicted co-conspirators can carry less credibility, Crawford said. Indicting Al-Najjar, even if he is not brought to Tampa for trial, could make the entire case against Al-Arian appear stronger.

"Even if some of the evidence against another defendant doesn't involve Sami, the more mud you can throw in his direction, the better some of it will stick," he said.

The prosecutors could also be buying itself more time, Crawford said. Al-Arian, Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Ballut and Hatem Fariz are scheduled for trial in January. The men have denied all the charges and haven't given any indication that they would be willing to testify against the others. With a new defendant named, defense attorneys could feel forced to ask for more time to prepare for trial.

Federal prosecutors would not say if Al-Najjar had been arrested or if they had any concrete plans to have him returned to the United States any time soon. Four other men named as defendants in the case have not been arrested or deported, including Bashir Nafi, an academic based in London.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.