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Terror Indictments

Witnesses vouch for Al-Arian's character

By GRAHAM BRINK, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2003


TAMPA -- Character witnesses swore in court Friday that Sami Al-Arian never gave them reason to believe allegations he was a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Al-Arian was a good man of high values devoted to a peaceful solution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the witnesses said.

"He believes that we must build a culture of hope and possibility to defeat terrorism," said Agha Saeed, national chairman of the American Muslim Alliance.

The portrayal contrasted starkly with that painted by prosecutors, who allege to have evidence from intercepted phone calls and faxes that Al-Arian was the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or PIJ.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo is hearing testimony to determine whether to grant bail to Al-Arian and three other defendants. They were arrested last month on charges that include conspiracy to commit racketeering and conspiracy to murder, maim or injure people on foreign soil, including U.S. citizens.

The indictment does not accuse Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor, or the three other defendants of planning or carrying out any terrorist attacks. The allegations focus on their role in raising funds for the PIJ.

On Friday, Al-Arian's two oldest children, Abdullah and Laila, testified that their father never mentioned the PIJ to them.

On cross-examination, prosecutor Walter "Terry" Furr peppered Abdullah Al-Arian, 22, about a photo of a billboard taken when he was on a trip to Lebanon last year with a group of fellow students from Duke University. The billboard included an image of the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini and the seal of Hezbollah, a militant group that has killed dozens of Israelis.

Furr suggested the photo indicated that Abdullah Al-Arian supported, or at least sympathized with, the current Iranian regime, which is the chief financial backer of the PIJ.

Al-Arian denied Furr's suggestion, saying he and the others took pictures of all kinds of things while on the trip.

During the hearing, the defense attorneys pursued their theme that the 121-page indictment against Sami Al-Arian and the others is lacking in substance.

They attacked the many references in the indictment to phone calls the defendants made after terrorist attacks in the Middle East. Anyone with family and friends in that region would pick up the phone and talk about what was happening, they said.

Bruce Howie, the lawyer for Ghassan Ballut, said prosecutors have made some innocent statements sound sinister, including one in which Ballut is alleged to be heard saying an attack in Israel was "successful."

"One might say that Hitler was 'successful' in taking over Poland," Howie said, but that does not mean the speaker supports the action, he added.

Sami Al-Arian's attorney, Nicholas Matassini, put on a witness to call into question a claim in the indictment that suggested Al-Arian tried in 1996 to find a supplier of urea, a fertilizer that can be used to make bombs.

Witness Syed Laeq Ali, a Tampa contractor, said a business acquaintance of his inquired in 1996 about helping him find a supplier of urea for legitimate purposes. The acquaintance had a buyer in India already set up, said Ali, who was born in India.

Ali mentioned the potential deal to Al-Arian's brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, who said he would try to help, Ali said. Eventually, the deal became too complicated and Ali and Al-Najjar backed out.

While most bail hearings last less than a couple of hours, this one began Thursday and will continue next week.

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