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Co-Defendants in Fla. Deny Ties to Conspiracy

By John Mintz
Wash­ing­ton Post
Wednes­day, June 8, 2005; Page A02

TAMPA, June 7 — Three co-defen­dants of accused ter­ror­ist leader Sami al-Ari­an, a for­mer Flori­da uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sor on tri­al here, staunch­ly deny any con­nec­tion to the Pales­tin­ian ter­ror­ist group at the heart of the case, their lawyers said in court Tues­day.

“This is a case of no evi­dence,” said Bruce Howie, attor­ney for Chica­go dry clean­er Ghas­san Zayed Bal­lut. After scour­ing six years of his clien­t’s com­put­er use and all his bank records, “the gov­ern­ment came up with noth­ing.”

There is a vast dis­crep­an­cy between the grav­i­ty and detail in the charges against al-Ari­an, and those against the oth­er three on tri­al, whom the pros­e­cu­tion calls rank-and-file mem­bers of the Pales­tin­ian Islam­ic Jihad (PIJ) orga­ni­za­tion, which spon­sors sui­cide attacks on Israelis, accord­ing to court doc­u­ments.

Some defense attor­neys said out­side the court­room in recent days that the three defen­dants — Bal­lut, for­mer uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent Sameeh Taha Ham­moudeh and Illi­nois char­i­ty man­ag­er Hatim Naji Fariz — were swept into the case because of pros­e­cu­tors’ need to build a crim­i­nal case of con­spir­a­cy — in this case, con­spir­a­cy to kill and maim hun­dreds of Israelis since the 1980s.

Legal experts said that the U.S. gov­ern­ment had lit­tle choice but to craft a con­spir­a­cy case. The vast bulk of their evi­dence, derived from years of secret wire­taps and mon­i­tor­ing of fax­es, cen­ters on the ear­ly to mid-1990s, before al-Ari­an’s offices and home were searched and he became more cir­cum­spect over the tele­phone.

But the statute of lim­i­ta­tions allows the pros­e­cu­tion to charge some­one for crimes going back only five years — unless the charge is con­spir­a­cy, in which case the gov­ern­ment can bring in alle­ga­tions going back decades, as it has done in this tri­al.

The prob­lem for the pros­e­cu­tion, defense attor­neys said, is that those secret­ly mon­i­tored wire­taps and fax­es show al-Ari­an dis­cussing inti­mate details of PIJ’s oper­a­tions not with his three co-defen­dants but with five oth­er men.

All of those five men were top PIJ lead­ers with al-Ari­an for years, U.S. pros­e­cu­tors said, and all of them have been charged with him with con­spir­a­cy to mur­der — but they are over­seas and will not be tried in this case.

Defense attor­neys and crim­i­nal lawyers who have observed the case said the gov­ern­ment was in a jam — how could it put on a tri­al for crim­i­nal con­spir­a­cy and have only one con­spir­a­tor at the defense table?

“The three defen­dants on tri­al with al-Ari­an are basi­cal­ly stage props,” said Steve Craw­ford, a for­mer fed­er­al pros­e­cu­tor who has fol­lowed the case and who recent­ly rep­re­sent­ed Ham­moude­h’s wife on an unre­lat­ed fraud charge. “The gov­ern­ment did­n’t have enough of the big guns [from PIJ] here to give a visu­al show­ing of a con­spir­a­cy, so they sweep in the poor mopes at the bot­tom.”

Defense lawyers and pros­e­cu­tors declined to com­ment. U.S. Dis­trict Judge James Moody has barred them from speak­ing about the case out­side the court­room.

The five over­seas defen­dants who are not on tri­al now were caught in hun­dreds of phone calls and fax­es dis­cussing the key strate­gic issues then fac­ing PIJ — deep inter­nal strug­gles, the dis­ap­pear­ance of mil­lions of dol­lars, how to pla­cate its angry finan­cial back­ers in the Iran­ian gov­ern­ment, and whether to merge with the Islam­ic Resis­tance Move­ment, a com­pet­ing mil­i­tant Pales­tin­ian group.

The five are Ramadan Shal­lah, who worked at an al-Ari­an think tank at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South Flori­da and who now runs PIJ from Syr­ia; Abd al Aziz Awda, PIJ’s orig­i­nal spir­i­tu­al leader; al-Ari­an’s broth­er-in-law, Mazen al-Naj­jar; lead­ing Mus­lim schol­ar Bashir Nafi; and Muhammed Tasir al-Khat­ib, the group’s alleged trea­sur­er.

Lawyer Stephen Bern­stein said in court that his client, Ham­moudeh, was not part of any crim­i­nal con­spir­a­cy and staunch­ly believes in peace talks between Israel and the Pales­tini­ans, although PIJ bit­ter­ly oppos­es them. “His views are the antithe­sis of PIJ,” he said.


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