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Malaysia halts deportation

| Monday, Dec. 22, 2003

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- At the last minute, Malaysian officials called off plans Sunday to deport an alleged leader of the al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah network to Indonesia, where he is expected to walk free.

The delay adds to the uncertainty about the case of Iqbal Mohammad Rahman, an Indonesian who's accused by the United States of being the main recruiter for the Asia-based terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah.

Iqbal has been jailed without trial in Malaysia for more than two years. Authorities gave no explanation for the cancellation of the scheduled Sunday deportation only hours before Iqbal would have boarded a flight -- even to the suspect's wife, left waiting for him at the airport.

Malaysian immigration authorities had told his wife, Fatimah Zahrah Abdul Aziz, to buy him a plane ticket and give it and other documents to the Indonesian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur so he could be repatriated there.

Having followed instructions, Fatimah said she was told her husband would be brought to the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Sunday and escorted onto the flight to Indonesia, his native country.

Fatimah, who planned later to join him in Indonesia, went to the airport for the flight with their nine children with her to say goodbye.

When she got there, she learned from the airline that her husband had not checked in. Officials at the immigration detention center in northern Malaysia, where Iqbal was being held, told her by telephone that he was still there and that his deportation was postponed indefinitely.

"I feel very sad and disappointed," Fatimah told reporters at the airport. " ... I had expected to be with my husband today."

She said she feared the government had changed its mind and now wanted to keep Iqbal locked up in Malaysia.

Immigration officials at the detention center refused to comment, and other government officials weren't available Sunday.

In August, Home Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi confirmed that Iqbal would be deported, but the government has largely kept quiet about its specific plans. Abdullah is now also Malaysia's prime minister.

Iqbal, 46, was arrested in 2001 and detained for threatening national security by seeking to establish a hardline Islamic state in Southeast Asia though violent means. The U.S. State Department in January designated him a terrorist and called him Jemaah Islamiyah's "primary recruiter and second in command."

Iqbal has denied being involved in any terrorist activities.

Officials say Iqbal was a close associate of Jemaah Islamiyah's alleged spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir and of Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali.

Hambali is accused of being al-Qaida's operations chief in Southeast Asia and of masterminding last year's nightclub bombings on Indonesia's Bali island, which killed 202 people, as well as other deadly attacks.

Iqbal, along with Bashir and Hambali, emigrated to Malaysia from Indonesia in the mid-'80s. They opened an Islamic school in southern Malaysia together, where officials say they preached a radical version of Islam and built a cell of militant followers.

Iqbal was among the first of scores of arrests in Malaysia and Singapore in 2001 and 2002 that exposed Jemaah Islamiyah along with a plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy and other western targets in Indonesia.

The allegations against Iqbal relate more to fund-raising and fomenting extremism than bomb attacks. He is accused of recruiting Muslims to fight Christians in Indonesia's restive Muluku province.

Officials say Hambali took over the Malaysian cell of Jemaah Islamiyah after Iqbal was arrested, and steered it toward greater violence.

More than 70 Islamic militant suspects are jailed in Malaysia under a tough security law that allows detention without trial for two years on orders of the home minister. Such orders are renewable without review, meaning suspects can be detained indefinitely.

But when the original order detaining Iqbal expired in August, the home minister, Abdullah, did not review it. No reasons were given, though the possibility of a bureaucratic error has been raised.

Instead, Iqbal was declared an "undesirable immigrant," his permanent residency in Malaysia was revoked and he was handed to immigration officials to be deported.

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