A federal judge has said he would order Sameeh Hammoudeh released from jail pending deportation. But during a hearing Tuesday, U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. added that he doubted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would release Hammoudeh despite the order.
"But at least we have the federal judge saying he should be released," said Hammoudeh's attorney, Stephen Bernstein.
Hammoudeh has been held in jail for three years on charges that he transferred money to a terrorist group in the territories occupied by Israel. In early December, he was acquitted of all charges. He was a co-defendant of former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian's.
After his acquittal, Hammoudeh expected to be deported under terms of a plea deal on unrelated tax and immigration law charges. But he remains in jail.
"It makes no sense. All of my rights are being violated," Hammoudeh told the St. Petersburg Times, Tuesday.
The reason for his incarceration, according to federal prosecutor Alexis Collins: "He has no stay of removal to be redetermined."
Collins, in government terminology, is describing a kind of bureaucratic limbo.
In essence, when Hammoudeh pleaded guilty in the tax case in exchange for being deported, he should have been shipped out. It takes a "stay of removal" to delay deportation. But Hammoudeh was already in jail in connection with the terrorism trial. With no risk of his fleeing, ICE didn't need to do the paperwork to freeze his deportation.
So, Collins is saying ICE is apparently waiting for paperwork asking that Hammoudeh not be deported, in order to be able to reverse the paperwork and legally deport him.
Collins said Hammoudeh's wife, Nadia, who also pleaded guilty in the tax case, got to leave the United States for Jordan with their six kids two weeks ago because she had a "stay of removal" that was reversed. This stay and reversal, she said, made Nadia's case different from her husband's, which explains why she was deported and got to go and he didn't.
"Legal jibberish," Bernstein called Collins' argument.
"It's simple: Hammoudeh was acquitted and should not be in jail," he said.
Steve Crawford, the Hammoudehs' lawyer in the deportation case, referred to the "absurdity of the situation" and said he was disappointed that the government was thwarting Hammoudeh's release and deportation, rather than helping them along.
"I'd like for the government to explain why Sameeh Hammoudeh is being treated differently from his wife," Crawford told Moody.
"Holding him without due process is improper, and either ICE or the prosecutors should explain why," Bernstein said.
Moody's response: "If Hammoudeh is not released by March 7, the burden will be on ICE to say why he's held."
March 7 will mark 90 days that Hammoudeh has been imprisoned since his acquittal. By law, ICE officials are allowed 90 days from the acquittal date to act, or they must explain their refusal to do so.
ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez would not say why Hammoudeh is still in jail.