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Ex-professor beats terror charges

Fiery Pales­tin­ian advo­cate Sami Al-Ari­an, 3 co-defen­dants cleared in high-pro­file tri­al

Eric Licht­blau, New York Times
Wednes­day, Decem­ber 7, 2005

WASHINGTON — In a major defeat for fed­er­al law enforce­ment offi­cials, a jury in Flori­da declined 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 vio­la­tions. 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 Al-Ari­an’s defense lawyers, said in a tele­phone inter­view. “They looked over at Sami 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.” The tri­al, last­ing more than five months, hinged on the ques­tion of whether Al-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 Al-Ari­an for 10 years, relied on 20,000 hours of taped con­ver­sa­tions culled from wire­taps on Al-Ari­an and his asso­ciates. Offi­cials charged that 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 against him. “Peo­ple here are pret­ty stunned and amazed by the ver­dicts,” said a fed­er­al law enforce­ment offi­cial in Wash­ing­ton who has mon­i­tored the case close­ly, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymi­ty. “We thought we had him dead to rights.” In bring­ing the case against Al-Ari­an in 2003, the Jus­tice 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, Al-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 pros­e­cu­tions. In the mid-1990s, news cov­er­age about Al-Ari­an drew atten­tion to his fiery oppo­si­tion to the Israeli occu­pa­tion and led some crit­ics to label the Uni­ver­si­ty of South Flori­da as “Jihad U.” But many Mus­lims in Flori­da con­tin­ued to sup­port him, and as an influ­en­tial Mus­lim activist, he con­tin­ued to have access to senior Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can offi­cials. How­ev­er, crit­i­cism accel­er­at­ed after the Sept. 11 attacks, par­tic­u­lar­ly in light of his appear­ance on Fox News just weeks after the 2001 attacks, in which the show’s host, Bill O’Reil­ly, con­front­ed him with his past state­ments con­cern­ing “Death to Israel.” His indict­ment in 2003 led the uni­ver­si­ty to fire him, a move that had been debat­ed for years, and dis­clo­sure of his close deal­ings with Pales­tin­ian mil­i­tants as cit­ed in the indict­ment prompt­ed even some uni­ver­si­ty back­ers to rethink their sup­port for him. Fam­i­ly mem­bers of Al-Ari­an and the oth­er three defen­dants — Sameeh Ham­moudeh, Ghas­san Bal­lut and Hatim Fariz — wept in court as the not-guilty ver­dicts were read, and Mus­lims in the Tam­pa area planned a prayer ser­vice and cel­e­bra­tion Tues­day night at the local mosque Al-Ari­an helped found. Al-Ari­an is to remain in jail on an immi­gra­tion hold, but Moreno said the defense would prob­a­bly file a motion next week seek­ing to have him released on bond.