BOISE, Idaho -- A Saudi graduate student accused of setting up websites to help Islamic militants recruit followers went on trial yesterday in a key test of a USA Patriot Act provision that bars the giving of expert advice to terrorist groups.
US District Judge Edward Lodge questioned potential jurors in the case against Sami Omar Al-Hussayen about their knowledge of Islam and of religious conflicts in the Middle East and Chechnya, as well as their feelings about terrorism.
Hussayen, a 34-year-old University of Idaho student working on his doctorate in computer science, is charged with three counts of aiding terrorism. He is also charged with visa fraud and making false statements.
He is accused of helping to run websites that supported the militant Palestinian organization Hamas and other groups allegedly promoting terrorism.
Federal prosecutors said he provided ''material support" to terrorists, a crime that was expanded under the Patriot Act to include ''expert advice or assistance."
Hussayen was arrested at his home on Feb. 26, 2003, and has gotten strong support from students and faculty on the Moscow campus, where he had a reputation as a positive leader of the small Islamic community. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he marched in a peace rally, donated blood, and worked to educate local residents about Islam.
His lawyer has said that although his client set up the websites, any statements made on those sites supporting terrorism were not his.
The case has been seen as a test of the portion of the Patriot Act that prohibits providing expert advice or assistance to terrorist groups -- a provision that critics say can snare people who may inadvertently provide assistance.
''We have a law that is shaky at best, and my feeling is that Sami is going to be the test case in this," said Rand Lewis, director of the Martin Institute for Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution and the Martin School of International Affairs at the University of Idaho.
But federal prosecutors said that in addition to running websites and e-mail groups for would-be terrorists, Hussayen maintained bank accounts to funnel cash to another group with terrorist connections.