Fla. ex-professor cleared of some terror charges
Indictment was hailed as a result of the Patriot Act
TAMPA, Fla. -- In a defeat for prosecutors, a former Florida professor accused of helping to lead a terrorist group that has carried out suicide bombings against Israel was acquitted on almost half the charges against him yesterday. The jury deadlocked on the rest.
The case against Sami al-Arian, 47, had been seen as one of the biggest courtroom tests yet of the Patriot Act's expanded search-and-surveillance powers.
After a five-month trial and 13 days of deliberations, the jury acquitted Arian of eight of the 17 counts against him, including a charge of conspiring to maim and murder people overseas. The jurors deadlocked on the others, including charges he aided terrorists.
Arian, a former University of South Florida computer engineering professor, wept after the verdicts, and his lawyer, Linda Moreno, hugged him. He will return to jail until prosecutors decide whether to retry him on the deadlocked charges.
Two codefendants, Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Zayed Ballut, were acquitted of all charges. A third, Hatem Naji Fariz, was found not guilty on 25 counts; jurors deadlocked on the remaining eight.
''While we respect the jury's verdict, we stand by the evidence we presented in court," said a Justice Department spokeswoman, Tasia Scolinos.
Arian's wife, Nahla, celebrated outside the courthouse with family and supporters. ''I'm ecstatic," she said. ''My husband is an outspoken Palestinian activist who loved this country, believed in the system, and the system did not fail him."
Moreno said she hoped that prosecutors would take into account the ''overwhelming number of not-guilty verdicts" against the defendants in deciding whether to try Arian again.
''We are so grateful to these jurors," Moreno said. ''They worked hard." She planned to ask the court soon to release Arian from jail.
Federal prosecutors said Sami Arian and his codefendants had acted as the communications arm of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, spreading the word and raising money that went toward suicide attacks that have killed hundreds.
Arian was considered one of the most important figures to be brought to trial in a terrorism case in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. His indictment in 2003 was hailed by the attorney general at the time, John Ashcroft, as one of the first triumphs of the Patriot Act, which was enacted in the weeks after Sept. 11.
The Patriot Act gave the government greatly expanded powers and broke down the wall between foreign intelligence investigations and domestic law enforcement.
In the Arian case, officials said, it allowed separate FBI investigations, one of them a long secret foreign intelligence inquiry into the professor's activities, to be combined and all the evidence to be used against him.
A male juror, whose name was being kept secret, said he did not see the case as a First Amendment issue. The decision, he said, came down to a lack of proof. ''I didn't see the evidence," he said.
On Monday, the panel told Judge James S. Moody of US District Court in Tampa that they could not reach verdicts on all counts. Moody sent them back to continue deliberations, and they emerged yesterday to tell him that they were hopelessly deadlocked on the remaining counts against Arian and Fariz.
One juror said in a note to the judge that she was being pressured by other jurors to change her vote. ''My nerves and my conscience are being whipped into submission," the juror wrote.
Arian, a Palestinian who was born in Kuwait, has lived in the United States since 1975. He was granted permanent-resident status in 1989 and was denied US citizenship in 1996.
Arian was fired from the university shortly after he was indicted.
The federal jury heard from 80 government witnesses and listened to often-plodding testimony about faxes and wiretapped phone calls.
The government alleged that the defendants were part of a Tampa terrorist cell that took the lead in determining the structure and goals of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the State Department has listed as a terrorist group.
Prosecutors said Arian and other members of the terrorist organization used the university to give them cover as teachers and students, and held meetings under the guise of academic conferences.
The defendants said that although they were vocal advocates in the United States for the Palestinian cause and may have celebrated news of the terrorist group's attacks, the government had no proof that they planned or knew about any violence. They said the money they raised and sent to the Palestinian territories was for legitimate charities.
Arian's lawyer, William Moffit, said the professor was being persecuted for espousing unpopular opinions that should be protected under the First Amendment.
''Any discussion of Sami Al-Arian being the most powerful man in the PIJ is fantasy," Moffitt said in his closing argument. ''He never had control of the money, he never made any decisions."
The case was built on transcripts of wiretapped phone calls and faxes, records of money moving through accounts, documents seized from the defendants' homes and offices, and their own words on video. At times, the participants appeared to speak glowingly of the Palestinian ''martyrs" who carried out suicide attacks.
''This shows we have faith in the American justice system," said Ahmed Bedier, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which had supported Arian. ''This has shown that America is not only the best country in the world, but the jurors proved that we also have the best justice system."