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9/11 paranoia gets scientist

Washington, April 8: An Indian scientist has been arrested in Florida for stealing his own research work and has been asked to surrender his passport for fear that he may flee America to return home.

The curious case of Singh Lakshman Meena, 33, a research scientist on a one-year fellowship at the University of Central Florida sponsored by the Indian government, has the potential to become a landmark in the fine line dividing academic work and terrorist sensitivities in America in the paranoia following 9/11.

Meena was arrested by the university police on March 22 after a search of his office revealed that he was in possession of vials containing DNA samples from his tuberculosis research and computer disks containing information from the study.

He was to have finished his research and left for India two days later. Instead, this week, he was produced in an Orange County court where his bail was set for $3,500.

A spokesman for the county's law enforcement said Meena would be unable to leave for home because his passport is being confiscated. Immigration authorities at airports have been instructed to hold him if he tries to leave the US.

Meena's lawyer, Dean Mosley, has tried to convince the court that his client is a respected scientist with academic credentials, who was simply trying to take his work back to India.

In an affidavit, the dean of University of Central Florida's Burnett College of Bio-medical Sciences said the DNA samples found in Meena's possession have 'real potential for use in drug development', including tuberculosis vaccines, and have been classified by the US as 'potential weapons for bio-terrorism'.

The lawyer disputes this. 'This is not about any kind of terrorism or a bio-terrorist situation. This is just one scientist trying to show his university in India and the government that this is what you paid for, sending me to America,' Mosley told reporters in Florida.

Mosley said the trauma of his arrest has made Meena a 'nervous wreck'. The lawyer, however, admits that his client failed to fill out the necessary paperwork for transferring his research out of the Florida institution.

Randy Means, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office, indicated that prosecutors were willing to err on the side of caution. He admitted that 'what concerns us is we don't know enough about what these proteins, DNA samples and genes can do or can't do'.

It is the kind of dilemma that America has faced since September 11 and has made US universities poorer both financially and academically as students are now shifting to universities in Canada and Europe.

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