Terrorism acquittals a blow to feds
A former professor and three other Palestinian activists are acquitted of most terrorism-related charges they faced
BY PHIL LONG AND MARTIN MERZER
TAMPA - A former college professor was found not guilty Tuesday of key charges linking him to a Palestinian terrorist group that allegedly operated an underground cell in Florida, ending a lengthy trial that balanced allegations of terrorist-related acts against assertions of abused constitutional rights.
After 13 days of deliberation, a federal jury acquitted Sami Al-Arian, once a computer sciences professor at the University of South Florida, of eight of the 17 charges against him, including a charge that he conspired with other leaders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad to murder people in Israel.
The 12-member jury deadlocked on the nine other counts against him, including charges that he aided terrorists.
Al-Arian wept in relief as the verdicts were read. One of his attorneys, Linda Moreno, hugged him. Supporters outside the courthouse cheered when families of the defendants emerged.
''I'm so grateful to God because He's the one who showed my husband's innocence,'' said Nahla Al-Arian, the defendant's wife. She also thanked the jury ``that showed there was no case and my husband was innocent.''
Two other pro-Palestinian activists, Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Zayed Ballut, were found not guilty of all charges.
The fourth man cited in the government's sweeping 51-count indictment in 2003, Hatem Naji Fariz, was acquitted of 25 charges, with the jury unable to decide on eight others.
BACK TO JAIL
After serving 33 months in jail awaiting trial and a verdict, Al-Arian was returned to prison and will remain there until prosecutors decide whether to retry him and Fariz on the deadlocked charges.
Fariz, who was not held in jail during the trial, remains free.
''While we respect the jury's verdict, we stand by the evidence we presented in court against Sami Al-Arian and his co-defendants,'' said Tasia Scolinos of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Taken as a whole, the verdict dealt a blow to one of the federal government's first major tests of the expanded search and surveillance powers authorized by the controversial Patriot Act, which was enacted shortly after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The four defendants had been accused of racketeering, conspiracy to maim and murder and providing material support for Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Branded by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization, the PIJ reportedly has killed more than 100 people in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The indictment did not allege a connection to al Qaeda or to any attacks on U.S. soil, but it was issued -- amid considerable fanfare by the Bush administration -- within 18 months of the Sept. 11 attacks and as the United States prepared for war with Iraq.
The case also played a major role in last year's U.S. Senate campaign in Florida, with Democrat Betty Castor, a former USF president, absorbing harsh attacks over the Al-Arian issue from primary opponent Peter Deutsch and Republican candidate Mel Martinez, who ultimately won the election.
In the end, after more than five months of testimony by nearly 80 witnesses and the presentation of 1,800 faxes, wiretap transcripts, e-mail and other exhibits, most observers agreed that no single piece of evidence directly linked the defendants to terrorist acts.
Rather, the case boiled down to the jury's interpretation of a long series of statements and actions.
On Tuesday, the jury of seven men and five women found that those statements and actions did not rise above the threshold of guilt.
''I didn't think the government showed us clear, definitive evidence,'' one female juror said as she walked away from the courthouse along windy Polk Street. ``Let's just say I couldn't connect all the dots. There was a lot they didn't connect.''
A male juror who also asked not to be identified said: ``The main thing was that the evidence wasn't all there.''
But the jury could not complete the job: One juror complained Tuesday that holdouts were being intimidated as the panel sought unanimity on the remaining charges.
Born in Kuwait of Palestinian parents, Al-Arian arrived in the United States in 1975, began teaching at USF in 1986 and helped establish two pro-Palestinian groups in Tampa, including one that called itself an Islamic think tank. He was fired by the university shortly after the indictment was issued.
HELD FOR THREE YEARS
His brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, made headlines when he was held on secret evidence for three years and deported in 2002. Many observers believed federal authorities detained and held Al-Najjar in the hope he would turn against Al-Arian.
During the trial that ended Tuesday, prosecutors said the defendants' activities, including the collection and transfer of funds for the families of some people responsible for terrorist acts, proved that the four conspired to facilitate terrorist attacks and rendered the men just as guilty as suicide bombers and other attackers.
Five others charged in the February 2003 indictment were never apprehended.
''The men of the PIJ you got to know in this case, they didn't strap bombs to their bodies,'' prosecutor Cherie Krigsman told the jury during final arguments on Nov. 7. ``They leave that to somebody else.''
She and other prosecutors focused much of their fire on Al-Arian, 47, a high-profile supporter of the Palestinian cause who had been under federal investigation -- and subjected to hyperactive and sometimes lurid coverage by local media -- since at least 1995.
Prosecutors called Al-Arian a ''crime boss'' who exploited his position at USF and the nation's freedoms of speech and travel.
''Sami Al-Arian was a professor by day and a terrorist by night,'' Krigsman told the jury.
Krigsman and others pointed in particular to a videotaped statement in which Al-Arian said, ''Death to Israel,'' and letters and statements that seemed to rejoice over attacks that killed Israeli civilians.
Those came in contrast to Al-Arian's more moderate and public statements, in which he claimed to oppose such attacks.
''It is wrong,'' Al-Arian told The Herald in 1998. ``Anything that has to do with civilian casualties, it is just morally wrong, religiously wrong as well as politically wrong. How can you get people with you when you're doing that?''
Defense attorneys said the trial failed to show a direct connection between the defendants and acts of terrorism. Rather, they said, the four raised money for legitimate Palestinian charities and were being punished for holding and expressing unpopular political views.
In addition, many of their statements and actions came before the government designated Palestinian Islamic Jihad as a terrorist organization in January 1995.
''At the end of the day, when you think about wiretaps, think about what's not there,'' William Moffitt, one of Al-Arian's lawyers, said during closing arguments. ``There's not one discussion of planning violent activity.''
Earlier, he had rested Al-Arian's case without calling a single witness.
''There's a document,'' Moffitt told reporters. ``It's called the U.S. Constitution. Unless the Constitution is repealed in this courtroom, it protects Dr. Al-Arian for his speech. . .. The fact that Dr. Al-Arian is a Palestinian deprives him of no civil rights.''
Constitutional issues played a major role in the case, with U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. refusing to dismiss the case on a defense motion citing freedom of speech. Instead, Moody cited a Supreme Court ruling that ``communication is the essence of every conspiracy.''
But he also required prosecutors to thread a legal and semantic needle. They had to demonstrate that the defendants had knowledge of the terrorist violence and supported it with more than words. Merely showing sympathy for or an association with the group was not enough to merit conviction, the judge said.