A federal judge in Los Angeles late Friday struck down a last-ditch effort by the U.S. government to continue jailing a Buena Park man detained for two years because of his alleged ties to terrorism.
The after-hours ruling ended a day of roller-coaster emotions for Abdel Jabbar Hamdan and his family.
Hamdan, 45, had been ordered freed Thursday by U.S. District Court Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. and was looking forward to going home. But Department of Justice lawyers asked for time to seek an emergency stay, and filed a motion at 3 p.m. Friday asking Hatter to consider Hamdan’s alleged danger to the public and the possibility that he might flee.
Hatter denied the request and, for the second time in two days, said Hamdan could go home to his wife and six U.S.-born children.
“I can’t believe it’s finally happening,” said daughter Yaman Hamdan, 22, who will soon begin law school. “It’s been two years [that he’s been gone]. But I won’t really believe it until we have him home, because you don’t know what card the government is going to play next.”
It was uncertain Friday evening when Hamdan would be allowed to leave the immigration detention facility at Terminal Island, where he has been held since his arrest on July 28, 2004. His attorney, Ranjana Natarajan of the American Civil Liberties Union, said U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Los Angeles were supposed to draw up conditions of a supervised release.
Friday was a day of dueling legal motions, filed both by the government and Hamdan’s attorneys, either seeking to persuade Hatter to free Hamdan or keep him locked up. Natarajan, who works in Los Angeles, said the day was marked by “confusion and uncertainty and anticipation.”
“The judge clearly said the government has no business detaining him,” she said.
Though Hamdan was accused of having ties to terrorism, the government prosecuted him for being in the U.S. illegally after overstaying a student visa issued 27 years ago. He is a USC graduate and failed to leave after finishing his studies in 1986.
Before his arrest, Hamdan worked as a fundraiser for the Dallas-based Holy Land Foundation, an Islamic charity shut down by the U.S. government in December 2001 for allegedly raising money for Hamas, a Palestinian group designated as a terrorist organization by the State Department.
Hamdan and three officials of the charity were arrested almost three years after the FBI began investigating the group. The three officials -- the president, chairman and director of endowments -- are charged with terrorism-related crimes and await trial.
Hamdan, a Palestinian, was ordered deported to Jordan, where he grew up. Department of Homeland Security officials insist he is a threat to national security.
San Francisco attorney Stacey Tolchin, who also represents Hamdan, noted in a motion filed Friday that if the government believed he was a terrorist and a threat to national security, officials could have charged him under the terrorism provisions in the Patriot Act enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“The government has not found [Hamdan’s] involvement with the Holy Land Foundation so significant as to warrant a criminal indictment,” Tolchin said in her motion arguing for his release.
The government countered that Hamdan could secure his freedom “simply by agreeing to leave” the country.
Hamdan has appealed the effort to deport him, and the case is pending in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. In arguing for Hamdan’s continued incarceration, Justice Department lawyers said he had “no right to be at large in this country while that review proceeds.”
Yaman Hamdan said her family was afraid that the government could still find a way to keep her father locked up.
“Everyone knows the government can find a way to get what they want,” she said. “But it’s hard not to be excited.”
Late Friday about 200 supporters, cheered by news of Hamdan’s imminent release, gathered in a sweltering auditorium at the South Coast Chinese Cultural Center in Irvine to hear a dozen Muslim American community leaders decry his legal plight.
Among them was his wife, Entisar Hamdan, who stood on the stage flanked by two young sons. Trying not to cry, she said, “I cannot describe how I feel tonight. It’s been a long two years and, hopefully, it’s coming to an end soon.” She added that her husband also “believes very strongly that this case, insha Allah [God willing] is coming to an end. Nobody deserves to suffer this long for doing nothing.”
Shortly before 9 p.m., Hamdan telephoned the gathering from prison. His supporters bowed their heads. Hamdan said his attorneys “are looking for this to be a winner” referring to his case. The government, he said, “doesn’t know what is right or not right. They only want to win at any cost.”
He thanked his family who, he said, “has made me very proud. They did not miss one visit. My wife and kids have always been there for me.”
He also thanked the judge. “The judge believes in what is just for this country,” he said. “I thank him from the bottom of my heart and on behalf of all Muslims.”
Times staff writer Louis Sahagun contributed to this report