NEW YORK — A 27-year-old Palestinian activist who entered the United States illegally with a forged Swedish passport is being held in federal prison in Manhattan as a suspect in the World Trade Center bombing, his lawyers revealed Wednesday.
Lawyers said that Ahmad Mohammad Ajaj was seized at a probation office in Brooklyn by FBI agents on March 9. They charged that Ajaj has been wrongfully detained "virtually incommunicado."
Ajaj was in prison on a passport violation when the trade center explosion occurred on Feb. 26, they said at a news conference at the federal courthouse in Manhattan.
Lynne Stewart, one of Ajaj's lawyers, said that her client was first arrested when he tried to enter the United States on a false passport last September and he had served six months in prison. He was released on March 1, only to be rearrested eight days later.
The massive explosion at the trade center on Feb. 26 killed six people, injured more than 1,000 and forced the twin towers to close for more than a month. Five defendants have been formally charged so far in the case. A sixth has been charged with obstruction of justice in the continuing investigation.
Stewart said Ajaj's lawyers have filed "show cause" papers to force the government to reveal at a hearing next week why Ajaj is being held.
A Bureau of Prisons administrative order classifies Ajaj as "high security" because he is a "suspect in the World Trade Center bombing." Federal prosecutors had no immediate comment.
Stewart said Ajaj does not know any of the suspects in the bombing. She described Ajaj as a Palestinian activist who is seeking political asylum in the United States after imprisonment and torture by Israeli authorities.
In an affidavit accompanying the show cause filing, Ajaj said that he had not been charged with any crimes since his arrest in March and had not had a detention hearing. He said his phone calls were being monitored and because he is handcuffed, "the phone is held to my head by a Bureau of Prisons employee who can hear everything I say."
A second affidavit filed by Ajaj, seeking asylum in the United States and containing biographical data, said he was a Palestinian who was born in Jerusalem and had participated in anti-Israeli protests.
Ajaj said he was arrested on Oct. 22, 1987, and imprisoned until Nov. 28, 1989, by Israeli authorities, after which he was ordered to report twice daily to a police station. Ajaj charged that on several occasions he was interrogated and beaten by Israeli questioners and on May 17, 1991, he was deported to Jordan.
"I decided to come into the U.S.A., seeking a shelter to feel safe from Israeli occupation and torture," Ajaj said. "Having been deported, I cannot go back to Jerusalem where my family is. Not being a Jordanian citizen, I am not allowed permanent residency there and cannot work or go to school. My family could not come and see me because they are not allowed to leave Israel for any reason."
Stewart said that Ajaj wished to stay with relatives in Houston.
The lawyer said that when Ajaj was released from prison in March, he was ordered to report to the Brooklyn probation office, where he requested that his supervision be shifted to Houston. But on March 9, agents of the FBI, the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service took him into custody.