As President Barack Obama made his public appearance with Turkish President Abdullah Gul on Monday as part of his first trip to a Muslim country, U.S. federal agents were preparing to arrest Youssef Megahed in Tampa, Fla. Just three days earlier, on Friday, a jury in a U.S. federal district court had acquitted him of charges of illegally transporting explosives and possession of an explosive device.
Obama promised, when meeting with Gul, to "shape a set of strategies that can bridge the divide between the Muslim world and the West that can make us more prosperous and more secure."
Megahed, acquitted by a jury of his peers, thought he was secure, back with his family. He was enrolled in his final course needed to earn a degree at the University of South Florida. Then the nightmare he had just escaped returned. His father told me: "Yesterday around noon, I took my son to buy something from Wal-Mart ... when we received a call from our lawyer that we must meet him immediately. ... 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. They told me, ‘We are going to take your son ... to deport him.' "
Megahed is being held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a deportation proceeding. The charges are the same ones on which he was completely acquitted. In August 2007, Megahed and a fellow USF student took a road trip to see the Carolinas. When pulled over for speeding, police found something in the trunk that they described as explosives. Megahed's co-defendant, Ahmed Mohamed, said they were homemade fireworks.
Prosecutors pointed to an online video by Mohamed, said to show how to convert a toy into an explosives detonator. Facing 30 years behind bars, Mohamed took a plea agreement and is now serving 15 years. Megahed pleaded not guilty, and the federal jury in his trial agreed with his defense: He was an unwitting passenger and completely innocent of any wrongdoing.
That's where ICE comes in. Despite being cleared of the charges in the federal criminal case, it turns out that people can still be arrested and deported based on the same charges. The U.S. Constitution protects people from "double jeopardy," being charged twice with the same offense. But in the murky world of immigrant detention, it turns out that double jeopardy is perfectly legal.
Ahmed Bedier, the president of the Tampa Human Rights Council and co-host of "True Talk," a global-affairs show on Tampa community radio station WMNF focusing on Muslims and Muslim Americans, criticizes the pervasive and persistent attacks on the U.S. Muslim community by the federal government, singling out the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, or JTTFs. The JTTFs, Bedier says, "include not only federal FBI agents, but also postal inspectors, IRS agents, deputized local police officers and sheriff's deputies, any type of law enforcement," and when one agency fails to take down an individual, another agency steps in. "It's like an octopus," he says.
When the not guilty verdict was read in court last Friday, Megahed's father, Samir, walked over to the prosecutors. Bedier recalled: "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' ... the case was over."
Obama said in Turkey, "[W]e do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values."
Until Monday, Samir Megahed praised the justice system of the United States. He told me, "I feel happiness, and I'm very proud, because the system works." At a press conference after his son's ICE arrest, he said: "America is the country of freedom. I think there is no freedom here. For Muslims there is no freedom."
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.