Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Not Guilty Verdicts in Florida Terror Trial Are Setback for U.S.

Published: December 7, 2005
WASHINGTON, Dec. 6 - In a major defeat for law enforcement officials,
a jury in Florida failed to return guilty verdicts Tuesday on any of
51 criminal counts against a former Florida professor and three co-
defendants accused of operating a North American front for
Palestinian terrorists.

The former professor, Sami al-Arian, a fiery advocate for Palestinian
causes who became a lightning rod for criticism nationwide over his
vocal anti-Israeli stances, was found not guilty on eight criminal
counts related to terrorist support, perjury and immigration

The jury deadlocked on the remaining nine counts against him after
deliberating for 13 days, and it did not return any guilty verdicts
against the three other defendants in the case.

"This was a political prosecution from the start, and I think the
jury realized that," Linda Moreno, one of Mr. Arian's defense
lawyers, said in a telephone interview. "They looked over at Sami al-
Arian; they saw a man who had taken unpopular positions on issues
thousands of miles away, but they realized he wasn't a terrorist. The
truth is a powerful thing."

Federal officials in Washington expressed surprise at the verdict in
a case they had pursued for years.

The trial, lasting more than five months, hinged on the question of
whether Mr. Arian's years of work in the Tampa area in support of
Palestinian independence crossed the threshold from protected free
speech and political advocacy to illegal support for terrorists.

Prosecutors, who had been building a case against Mr. Arian for 10
years, relied on some 20,000 hours of taped conversations culled from
wiretaps on Mr. Arian and his associates. Officials said he had
helped finance and direct terrorist attacks in Israel, the Gaza Strip
and the West Bank, while using his faculty position teaching computer
engineering at the University of South Florida as a cover for his
terrorist activities.

But ultimately, the jury in Tampa that heard the case found him not
guilty of the charge of conspiring to kill people overseas, and it
deadlocked on three of the other most serious terrorism charges.

Justice Department officials said they were considering whether to re-
try Mr. Arian on the counts on which the jury did not reach verdicts.

While expressing disappointment in the verdicts, the officials said
the department had a strong track record of success in prosecuting
terrorists, including the separate convictions last week of a
Northern Virginia student and a Pakistani immigrant in New York on
charges of supporting Al Qaeda.

"We remain focused on the important task at hand, which is to protect
our country through our ongoing vigorous prosecution of terrorism
cases," said Tasia Scolinos, a spokeswoman for the Justice
Department. "While we respect the jury's verdict, we stand by the
evidence we presented in court against Sami al-Arian and his co-

In bringing the case against Mr. Arian in 2003, the department relied
on the easing of legal restrictions under the antiterrorism law known
as the USA Patriot Act to present years of wiretaps on the defendants
in a criminal context.

In the conversations cited by prosecutors, Mr. Arian was heard
raising money for Palestinian causes, hailing recently completed
attacks against Israel with associates overseas, calling suicide
bombers "martyrs" and referring to Jews as "monkeys and swine" who
would be "damned" by Allah.

But much of the conversation and activity used by prosecutors
predated the 1995 designation by the United States of Palestinian
Islamic Jihad as a terrorist group, a designation that prohibited
Americans from supporting it. Several legal analysts and law
professors said Tuesday that the government appeared to have
overreached in its case.

"I think the government's case was somewhat stale because a lot of
these events dated back 10 years, and the case was so complex that it
was all over the board," said Peter Margulies, a law professor at
Roger Williams University in Rhode Island who has studied terrorism

For the prosecutors, Professor Margulies said, "this is clearly
embarrassing, and they were clearly outmaneuvered by some very good
defense attorneys."

David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University who represented
Mr. Arian's brother-in-law in an earlier deportation case that also
gained wide exposure, said the verdict amounted to a rejection of the
government's "sweeping guilt by association theory."

In the mid-1990's, news coverage of Mr. Arian drew attention to his
opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and
led some critics to label the University of South Florida as "Jihad

Many Muslims in Florida continued to support him, however, and, as an
influential Muslim activist, he continued to have access to the most
senior Democratic and Republican officials, meeting with Bill
Clinton, George W. Bush and others.

Criticism accelerated after the Sept. 11 attacks, particularly in
light of Mr. Arian's appearance on a program on the Fox News Channel
just weeks later, in which the host, Bill O'Reilly, confronted him
with his past statements calling for "death to Israel."

Mr. Arian's indictment in 2003 led to his firing by the university, a
move that had been debated for years. And the disclosure of his close
dealings with Palestinian militants as cited in the indictment
prompted even some university backers to rethink their support for

Family members of Mr. Arian and the other three defendants - Sameeh
T. Hammoudeh, Ghassan Ballut and Hatim Fariz - wept in court on
Tuesday as the verdicts were read, and Muslims in the Tampa area
planned a prayer service and celebration on Tuesday night at the
local mosque Mr. Arian helped found.

Mr. Arian "loves America, and he believes in the system, and thank
God the system did not fail him," his wife, Nahla al-Arian, said
outside the federal courthouse as throngs of family members,
supporters and lawyers celebrated the results.

"Not a single guilty verdict," said Ms. Moreno, one of Mr. Arian's
two defense lawyers. "I have to say, that was more 'not guilty'
verdicts in those 20 minutes than I've heard in my 25 years as a
defense attorney."

Mr. Arian is to remain in jail on an immigration matter, but Ms.
Moreno said the defense would probably file a motion next week asking
to have him released on bond.

For the local Muslim community, the verdicts are "a huge relief, and
people are just jubilant," said Ahmed Bedier, director of the Tampa
chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Mr. Bedier, who attended much of the trial, said he had doubted
whether Mr. Arian could receive a fair trial in Tampa, especially in
light of the publicity his case had generated, but "the jury proved
us wrong," he said in a telephone interview.

"This was a very important case for us in that it tested both the
Patriot Act and the right to political activity," Mr. Bedier
said. "The jury is sending a statement that even in post-9/11
America, the justice system works, the burden of proof is on the
prosecution, and political association - while it may be unpopular to
associate oneself with controversial views - is still not illegal in
this country."

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