Immigration officials have arrested a twenty-three-year-old Florida student just three days after a jury acquitted him on federal explosives charges. Youssef Megahed was arrested in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store Monday, where he had gone shopping with his father. He had just begun a fast to celebrate his acquittal. Megahed’s attorneys say he now faces deportation proceedings, apparently on the same charges for which he was found not guilty. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: I am co-hosting this segment with Rob Lorei of WMNF community radio here in Tampa, also does a show here at PBS station WEDU, where we’re broadcasting from today, as we turn now to a controversial story developing here in Tampa.
Immigration officials have just arrested a twenty-three-year-old Florida student just three days after a jury acquitted him on federal explosives charges. Youssef Megahed was arrested in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart store Monday, where he had gone shopping with his dad. He had just begun a fast to celebrate his acquittal on Friday. Megahed’s attorneys say he now faces deportation proceedings, apparently on the same charges for which he was found not guilty.
Megahed is a legal permanent resident here in the United States. He’s lived here since he was eleven years old with his family. His case is already drawing comparisons to another Tampa case, the prosecution of the former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian. Al-Arian was jailed despite a jury not returning a single guilty verdict against him.
For more on this story now, I’m joined by Ahmed Bedier. He is co-host of True Talk, a global affairs show focusing on Muslim issues around the world and in the United States. It airs Fridays here in Tampa on the radio station WMNF. Ahmed is president of the Tampa Human Rights Council, a thirty-four-year-old organization in the Tampa Bay area.
And we’re joined by Youssef Megahed’s father. His name is Samir Megahed. He was with his son Youssef on Monday, yesterday, in Wal-Mart when Youssef got a call from his lawyer. We’re going to start with Samir.
Samir, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you tell us what happened?
SAMIR MEGAHED: What happened yesterday or starting from Friday? Starting from Friday, I am very happy, and I am proud for my son, because he is innocent. After the judge, Steven Merryday, said twice that my son is not guilty, I feel happiness, and I’m very proud, because the work system —- the systems work, sorry. And I feel happiness because the jury choose the right end for the bad story, which upon my son for two years. After that, I took my son from the court, and we returned to our house, and we started to celebrate his win in this case. We go to the beach Saturday and Sunday.
Yesterday around noon o’clock, I took my son to buy something from Wal-Mart, which is in Bruce B. Downs, when we received a call from our lawyer that we must meet him immediately for some reason. That’s why we left the shop. And when we got to the parking lot, we found ourselves surrounded by more than seven people. They dress in normal clothes without any badges, without any IDs, surrounded us and give me a paper. And they told me, “Sign this.” “Sign this for what?” I ask him. “This for what?” They told me, “We are going to take your son, because we are going to deport him.” I told him there is no penalty or anything upon my son to take him from me. And I told him, “Do have an Arabic translation for this paper to sign it for you?” He told me, “No.”
I asked him about the badge, but he refused to show me any badge or any ID, and they surrounded me and took my son from me and put him in a normal car, not a mini-van, not a police car. It is only a car with dark glass. You cannot see anybody inside it. But there is a driver on it, because when they put him in this car, they moved without anyone entering as the driver.
I tried to stop in front of this car, because I asked this person who showed me this paper that we must speak to our lawyer and my son wants to speak to him to let him know that somebody took him. I don’t know if they are from FBI, from policemen or from immigration. I don’t know. But they refused. And when I tried to give my son his telephone, they surrounded me and pushed me in front of the car, and they moved quickly. But they are more than seven, and they have more than five cars, because when they surrounded us, they are in front of me, back of me and around me from all directions. And -—
AMY GOODMAN: I just want to bring Ahmed Bedier into this conversation, who has been covering this for WMNF. Ahmed, the context of this story that Youssef, an engineering student at University of South Florida, just about to graduate, that he was acquitted on Friday of these explosives charges — explain what happened.
AHMED BEDIER: Well, originally, Youssef and a friend of his, another USF student, who was a Ph.D. candidate, were on a road trip in August of 2007 up into the Carolinas, and they were stopped for speeding. And evidently, when they searched the car, the police, the deputies in that area, suspected that there were some pipe bombs in the trunk. The driver, Ahmed Mohamed, who was also a friend of Youssef that was driving the car, said, “No, these are homemade fireworks. These are not any type of explosives.” The government disagreed, and they charged both students with transporting what they called low-grade explosives and not fireworks. And they also — there were some terrorism implications on there.
Troublesome also for Youssef’s co-defendant was they found some sort of video that he had uploaded to the website YouTube demonstrating how to change some sort of toy car in a remote detonator. Megahed and even his friend, who made the video and confessed to it, said, you know, Youssef Megahed didn’t know anything about this video, didn’t know what was in the contents of the trunk and any of these things. But even though he admitted solely to that, the government still went forward with the charges against Youssef and charged him with transporting explosives and possession of a destructive device.
After a lengthy trial and three days or four days of deliberation, the jury came back with a complete acquittal, not guilty, not guilty on all charges, and they were free on Friday. That was Friday evening.
ROB LOREI: So the jury agreed that Megahed didn’t know about the contents of the trunk. Isn’t this double jeopardy to arrest him again essentially on the same charges?
AHMED BEDIER: I mean, if you look overall, as far as the Constitution, it is a form of double jeopardy. But the way the government gets around that, they said, well, these are civil immigration charges; they’re not double jeopardy. And that’s how historically they’ve been, in select cases, they’ve been going around it. Similarly, for example, the Miami Seven case of those African American and Haitian people that were alleged to have wanted to blow up the Sears Tower, they had mistrals twice, and a few of them were completely acquitted. One of those people, who was a permanent legal resident, that was completely acquitted faced deportation charges afterwards on the exact same charges.
So some people have speculated that this is a form of punishment. When the government doesn’t win in federal court and criminal court, then their backup plan was to punish them in immigration. I mean, the timing of it. And there’s been some talk also that they had planned to arrest him Friday, as soon as he was acquitted, as a plan B, but thought that maybe it would be too bad of a public relations nightmare to, as soon as he gets acquitted by the jury, walks outside and then gets arrested.
ROB LOREI: Youssef’s family was ecstatic on Friday when he was acquitted, and his father did something unusual in the courtroom.
AHMED BEDIER: It startled many people. He walked over to the prosecution, the people that have been after his son for a couple of years now, and shook their hands, extended his hand, and he shook hands with the prosecution team and the FBI themselves and then also shook hands with the judge. The judge shook hands with Youssef and wished him “good luck in your future.” And they thought that they were — you know, the case was over.
AMY GOODMAN: Samir Megahed, why did you shake hands with the prosecution, with the FBI, with the judge?
SAMIR MEGAHED: I want to thank them about what they do with my son, because they tried to make him guilty, but the facts prove that he’s innocent and not guilty in both charges.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you able to visit him now, once again in detention?
SAMIR MEGAHED: No.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me asked Ahmed where this case goes from here.
AHMED BEDIER: I mean, you know, it’s a completely different animal, a different ball game, when it goes in immigration court. Now he’s being transported down to Miami, where the burden of proof on the government in immigration civil court for deportation is much, much less than a federal criminal court. It’s not beyond a reasonable doubt. There’s no independent jury. It’s up to one judge to make the decisions. And he could be locked up indefinitely until he’s deported, as long as he keeps fighting this.
And, you know, what this raises in questions for many people, especially human rights advocates and other, is that, you know, when the new president was voted into office, he said there was going to be a new way forward, especially when dealing with the Muslim world. And this case — you know, yesterday he was in Turkey talking about better relations with the Muslim world. I think the Muslim world is looking, and one of the signs if relations are going to be improving is how the President and the new administration treats Muslim Americans and Muslims right here. How can we want to reach out to Muslims around the world and extend — build better relations, when the relations are not so good at home?
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Ahmed Bedier of WMNF, and speaking to us on the phone is Samir Megahed. He is the father of Youssef Megahed, who has just been taken into detention three days after he was acquitted by a federal jury. As we turn now to our last story — oh, and Rob Lorei, thanks so much for co-hosting these segments with me —-
ROB LOREI: Thanks very much. Good to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: —- of WMNF and WEDU.