Federal prosecutors in New Jersey have removed the cases of 65 Middle Eastern students from their list of terrorism arrests, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Newark said Wednesday.
All had been charged with paying stand-ins to take the English exams required for entering U.S. colleges, several of which were attending Oregon universities at the time, including PSU.
“The prosecution revealed no direct connection with terrorism,” said Michael Drewniak, spokesman for the Newark office. He said the cases had been labeled as “international terrorism” at the time most of the students were arrested last May.
Apart from the student cases, prosecutors in New Jersey were reporting only two other terrorism cases as of February: a man arrested in Pakistan for killing Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and a man arrested in New Jersey on a visa violation who was sentenced to five months in jail.
Drewniak said the 65 cases were reclassified in Justice Department records as “anti-terrorism” prosecutions.
Federal prosecutors around the country are using the “anti-terrorism” label for common crimes uncovered during investigations of people with possible links to militant groups or working at vulnerable places such as airports.
He said the change was made after The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in March on the student cases being labeled terrorism. The Inquirer review was aided by Syracuse University’s nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Two months before, the General Accounting Office criticized the Justice Department for inflating its terrorism-conviction statistics. The nonpartisan congressional watchdog agency said prosecutors wrongly labeled three-fourths of 174 convictions they listed as international terrorism during fiscal 2002.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Jersey prosecuted the test-taking cases because the testing company, Educational Testing Services, is in the state. The investigation began before Sept. 11, 2001, and kicked into high gear after the terrorist attacks, a situation confirmed a year ago when initial arrests were made in Oregon.
Court records show that one of the students at first seemed to have links to terrorism.
Federal agents who searched the home of Fahad Alhajri – a television sportscaster from Qatar who was attending Norfolk State University in Virginia – found pictures of the World Trade Center stored on a computer.
Alhajri also had used an address in suburban Washington. There, investigators found a flight manual and a date book with a Sept. 11 entry reading “trackd the World Traed Cente.” Investigators have said the notation apparently was made after Sept. 11.
Lawyers for the students said most of their clients pleaded guilty and returned to their countries or were free in the United States on bond, awaiting sentencing.
Seven students from the United Arab Emirates pleaded guilty and all received probation, according to Washington attorney Thomas Abbenante, retained by the UAE embassy to represent its students. Some also were fined $500.
U.S. District Judge Joel A. Pisano, last week in Newark sentenced Alhajri – the student with the suspicious material – to one year probation. He immediately left the United States.
“You can infer from the sentence that their initial concerns about terrorist links have been resolved,” said Alhajri’s Washington attorney, Peter H. White.
Drewniak said it was important to send home students guilty of crimes.
“They came in here and committed fraud very quickly,” he said. “We are pleased that we were able to get them out of the country.”