Saudis suspected of terror intent who boarded school bus in Florida get essay assignment not jail time
June 28, 2006
Saudis to write ending to school bus adventure
Authorities are satisfied the two USF foreign students meant no harm by hopping on a public school bus. So instead of more jail time, they face ... an essay assignment.n Authorities are satisfied the two USF foreign students meant no harm by hopping on a public school bus. So instead of more jail time, they face ... an essay assignment.
By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA - Two Saudi Arabian men who climbed aboard a Hillsborough County school bus bound for Wharton High School in May will not be prosecuted, but they must complete a unique homework assignment from the State Attorney's Office.
"They have to write an essay in English documenting their experience," said state attorney's spokeswoman Pam Bondi, adding that it would "aid other students from other cultures" by showing them "what is allowable and acceptable in our country."
The assignment, along with a promise to avoid any future trouble with the law, make up the pretrial intervention program to which the two men agreed. Such a program is common among first-time offenders.
Mana Almanajam, 23, and Shaker Alsidran, 20, boarded the yellow bus on May 19 at Fletcher Avenue and 42nd Street.
Students alerted their substitute bus driver, who radioed the school district. By the time the bus arrived at campus at 7:30 a.m., a sheriff's deputy was on the scene to charge the two with trespassing.
Though their actions resulted in only misdemeanor charges, Almanajam and Alsidran quickly came under the microscope of the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Regional Domestic Security Task Force, the sheriff's Homeland Security Division and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
A sheriff's spokesman described the two as cagey and evasive as they answered questions. A judge held the men in jail for days without bail, despite the minor charges.
In the end, the entire incident appears to have been a mixup.
Both men entered the country on student visas and enrolled in January at the University of South Florida's English Language Institute. They are recipients of a Saudi government scholarship designed to boost post-Sept. 11, 2001, Saudi enrollment in U.S. schools and ease hostility toward Americans.
The men speak little English and said they wanted only to tour an American high school and didn't realize they weren't allowed on the bus.
"We've said all along this was a mistake and a misunderstanding," said Ahmed Bedier, director of the Central Florida Council on American-Islamic Relations. "They are very naive as to how the system works here. They didn't mean any harm."
While Bedier didn't object to the essay assignment, he still seemed upset by the initial treatment of Almanajam and Alsidran - namely, the days they spent in jail without bail and the assumption that they were considering a terrorist attack.
"People were jumping to conclusions," Bedier said. "This incident exposed the bias and the climate that exist for Muslims living in this country."
He said both men have continued with their studies at USF, and they likely will rely on their friends and teachers to help them write the required essay in English.
But for the most part, their brush with the American legal system is behind them.
"I'm happy today," Alsidran said Monday during a news conference, "because this problem is finished."[Last modified June 27, 2006, 06:04:54]