TAMPA -- A former professor at a Florida university was a fund-raising powerhouse in a pro-Palestinian terrorist cell blamed for scores of suicide attacks in Israel, a prosecutor said yesterday as the man's trial began.
Sami Al-Arian was at one time ''the most powerful man in the world" in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, federal prosecutor Walter E. Furr III told jurors in his opening statement.
Furr described how the 47-year-old Arian and three codefendants were allegedly involved in soliciting financial support for families of suicide bombers, getting money to PIJ headquarters in Syria and spreading word that the PIJ was responsible for attacks.
''These are the managers. These are the guys who ran the organization," Furr said. He described the defendants and other key PIJ figures as ''an elitist group of intellectuals" far above those who strapped on bombs and carried out the attacks.
Arian, a former University of South Florida computer science instructor who was fired after his arrest, has been in jail more than two years. He shook his head from side to side at times as Furr spoke. Relatives watched from the courtroom gallery, and supporters staged a lunchtime rally outside the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa.
In his opening statement, Arian's attorney, William Moffitt, characterized him as a scholar and political activist who spoke out with strong words against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, but who had not committed any crimes.
''The evidence will show that this case is about Dr. Al-Arian's right to speak, your right to hear him, and the attempt of the powerful to silence him," Moffitt told jurors.
The trial resumes today with opening statements from the other three defense attorneys.
Arian and the three codefendants -- Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Zayed Ballut, and Hatem Naji Fariz -- face a 53-count indictment that includes charges of providing material support to terrorists, racketeering, and conspiracy. Five other men have been indicted but have not been arrested. The trial is expected to last six months.
Prosecutors allege that the men used an Islamic academic think tank and a Palestinian charity founded by Arian in Tampa as fund-raising fronts for the PIJ, which is on a State Department list of terrorist organizations. Furr described them as ''an armed, criminal group of violent thugs" opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and committed to disrupting the peace process.
Furr described how Arian, as secretary of the PIJ, was a key figure in a ''terror cycle" perpetrated by the group.
He said PIJ members targeted Israelis in deadly suicide bombings and bragged about them to raise money for more attacks.
''They were pure PIJ," Furr said of Arian and codefendants.
The defendants have denied the charges, saying that they are being persecuted for their unpopular pro-Palestinian views. Each could get life in prison if convicted.
Hammoudeh, 44, is a former instructor and student at the school and an administrator at the Islamic Academy of Florida, which was founded by Arian.
Fariz, 32, managed a medical clinic in Spring Hill, and Ballut, 43, is a small-business owner from Tinley Park, Ill.