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Former art student boards plane, heading home in plea agreement

| Saturday, Dec. 15, 2001

Salam Ibrahim el Zaatari on Friday afternoon finally got to board a plane bound from Pittsburgh International Airport.

The former Art Institute of Pittsburgh student had tried to do just that nearly two months ago, but never got airborne.

Instead, authorities whisked him away that Oct. 28 day after a gate agent found a utility knife in his carry-on bag along with other art supplies.

With the specter of terrorism hanging heavy since the Sept. 11 attacks, el Zaatari went to the Allegheny County Jail on a federal felony charge of trying to smuggle a dangerous weapon aboard an aircraft . A plea-agreement Wednesday paved his release from custody, allowing him to return home to Lebanon.

"The media can be your best friend, and the media can be your worst enemy," the 21-year-old former art student said as he waited for his flight. At his side were two Immigration and Naturalization Service agents, who said their bosses had instructed them to forbid el Zaatari from speaking to reporters while on U.S. soil.

In keeping with the wishes of the agents, el Zaatari kept his remarks to a reporter brief. He said the reporter would have better luck if he made a trip to Lebanon with him, visiting the bars of Beirut.

"I promise you'll come back with a hang over," he said.

He looked like a college student headed back home for vacation. He wore a long brown leather jacket, a v-neck sweater and jeans. He had whiskers, a slight goatee and joked much of the time.

Later, after he finally was seated on a plane headed for Newark, N.J., his final U.S. port, el Zaatari spent most of his time chatting with one of the INS agents. They discussed Pittsburgh politics, schools, and the decline of the steel industry.

El Zaatari didn't appear resentful, instructing a reporter to write nothing but praise for the INS agents whom he described as gracious hosts. At one point, he remarked on how awful the food at the county jail was.

Accompanying el Zaatari on the flight was a family friend, Malek A. Francis, a Lebanese-born engineer and national chairman of the American Lebanese Congress, a Pittsburgh-based peace organization.

Francis, of Robinson Township, said he would travel all the way to Lebanon to make sure el Zaatari would get into the hands of his family. There, a welcoming appropriate for a dignitary awaited him, Francis said.

While at the Pittsburgh airport, calls from el Zaatari's home back in Lebanon frequently interrupted Francis' cell phone. At one point, an uncle of el Zaatari called to check on the arrival time. The youth's father, a banker, won't get on the telephone because he is too nervous and has a heart condition, Francis said. The mother has called repeatedly "because she cannot cry anymore because her tears are dried out," Francis said.

Francis said he visited el Zaatari in jail shortly after his arrest, agreeing to take up his cause after learning he was a cousin of Francis' former high school principal in Lebanon. That principal had defended Francis years ago from the Palestinian militia, and Francis knew the family was free of extremists.

Francis said that during his incarceration, el Zaatari only got one hour of release a day from his jail cell.

The other inmates at first wanted to kill el Zaatari when he was taken into custody believing he was a terrorist, Francis said.

"It was very tough on him," Francis recalled.

Later, the inmates befriended el Zaatari when they realized he wasn't a threat, but merely a young man wanting to return home, Francis said.

Francis, who is a Christian, said that when he visited el Zaatari at the jail the two would recite snippets of the Lord's Prayer.

The two, with some help from inmates at the jail, also concocted a way to patch el Zaatari's nightly calls to Francis to el Zaatari's parents in Lebanon, using a flaw in the jail's phone system that would allow calls to be transferred elsewhere, Francis said.

In his plea bargain, el Zaatari agreed to plead guilty to attempting to carry a concealed dangerous weapon onto a commercial aircraft. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors recommended that he be allowed to voluntarily depart the United States. Although federal guidelines called for a six-month sentence on the felony conviction, U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose followed the prosecutors' recommendation.

U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan has said the investigation into el Zaatari's background has thus far not revealed a connection to terrorism. At the time of his arrest, el Zaatari's student visa was no longer valid because he had dropped out of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He was there on and off between October 1999 and May 2000 to study filmmaking.

"He's a victim of the Sept. 11 attacks," Francis said.

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