Bail set for suspect in terrorism case
By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
A federal judge who refused to set bail Thursday for Sami Al-Arian and another suspect will allow Hatem Fariz, a Spring Hill man arrested in the terrorism fundraising case, to go free if he can muster $1.1-million. What's more, U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark A. Pizzo said the government's case against Fariz "is not substantial." He based the comment on the government's own admission about new information made available to them only on Monday.
In the grand jury indictment unsealed in February, Fariz was accused of aiding Al-Arian and others in raising money for terrorism. Among other things, the indictment referred to phone conversations between Fariz and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Abd Al Aziz Awda.
But the government's new information showed that, in the cases in which Fariz was alleged to have spoken by phone with Awda, the person on the other end was actually someone else. Pizzo said the revelation could mean that some of Fariz's conversations about fundraising could have simply been on behalf of legitimate Palestinian charities, not the Islamic Jihad.
Pizzo said there was no clear and convincing case that Fariz was a danger to the community or a serious flight risk -- something he could not say about Al-Arian and co-defendant Sameeh Hammoudeh.
And while $1.1-million bail is a significant amount, the judge noted that 10 members of Fariz's family had offered to come up with $1-million in his behalf. Others are prepared to post property and assets valued at more than $787,000.
Still, Fariz had not been freed as of early Thursday evening.
A 30-year-old American citizen, Fariz was born in Puerto Rico to Jordanian parents.
He lived several years in Chicago, where his parents and other relatives remain. While there he led a mosque in southwestern Chicago known as the Chicago Islamic Center.
Around January 2002, Fariz came to Hernando County with his wife and two children to become the office manager of Abbey PrimeCare Health Center -- a medical practice lead by Dr. Ayman Osman. He had found the position through a classified ad in the St. Petersburg Times, according to Osman. The job paid Fariz $60,000 a year.
Fariz was arrested and accused of aiding Al-Arian in raising money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group responsible for more than 100 deaths in Israel and its occupied territories. Federal agents raided Abbey PrimeCare's two offices -- on Northcliffe Boulevard at U.S. 19 and in the PineBrook Medical Center on Cortez Boulevard -- in search of evidence.
They also raided Fariz's home and found "martyr" videos, another video featuring a director of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad speaking about the group's assassinated leader and a Jihad document that was not explained in recent bond hearings.
Federal prosecutors, reviewing the bail order Thursday, had nothing to say about the judge's comments regarding their case against Fariz.
Richard Beachy, a neighbor whose cousin owns the 1275 Farley Ave. house that Fariz had been renting in Spring Hill, said the Fariz family had moved out of the house and gone to Tampa since Fariz was arrested.
"I couldn't imagine him being connected to any terrorist organization. He's just not that kind of person. He was just one great family guy," Beachy said Thursday evening.
Ron Maerz, another neighbor who occasionally saw the Fariz family walking in the neighborhood, said he wasn't happy that the judge had set bail.
"If he was possibly involved with sending money to suicide bombers in the Middle East, that's appalling," Maerz said.
The judge also set bail for Ghassan Ballut -- who succeeded Fariz as head of the Chicago Islamic Center. Ballut was still living in Chicago in February when the indictment was handed down.
However, the judge set a lower bail amount for Ballut, $620,000, because he said he thought the government's case against Ballut was weaker than its case against Fariz.
Ahmed Bedier, a Tampa spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations and an adviser to members of Hernando County's Muslim community, welcomed the judge's decision.
"We commend the judge's decision to grant bail to two of the individuals, which is proof that they are not a threat to society as the government had claimed in the past," Bedier said. "And also (it) addresses the claims of weak or unsubstantiated evidence, whether it is guilt by association or misinterpreted incidents."
-- Staff writer Duane Bourne contributed to this report. Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
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