Judge denies bail to Al-Arian
By GRAHAM BRINK and BRADY DENNIS
TAMPA -- Former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian will remain jailed while he awaits trial, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo called the evidence linking Al-Arian to the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad "substantial and convincing." The judge wrote in his 29-page ruling that he considered Al-Arian a danger to the community and a "serious" flight risk.
Pizzo said he could not find any terms under which he could grant bail to Al-Arian or fellow defendant Sameeh Hammoudeh.
"These two, based on the government's strong presentation, repeatedly assisted, promoted, or managed the PIJ, an organization which indiscriminately murders to achieve its goals," Pizzo wrote. "And both did this for years, regardless of the risks, risks apparent to all."
However, Pizzo said the government's case against two other defendants, Hatem Fariz and Ghassan Ballut, was "not substantial" and evidence of strong ties to PIJ affairs were "not as apparent."
Pizzo set bail for Fariz at $1.1-million and for Ballut at $620,000. They will also have to refrain from fundraising, keep a job and stay in Central Florida.
Frank Louderback, one of Al-Arian's attorneys, said the result was not a surprise and that Al-Arian would appeal.
Al-Arian's wife, Nahla Al-Arian, said this was a "dark era."
"The judge didn't see any evidence except what the government alleged," she said. "He based his decision on allegations, without evidence. It's very threatening to our civil rights."
Still, she said her family will press on.
"They can imprison his body, but they cannot imprison his soul," she said. "He is with us in spirit all the time."
Ballut's attorney, Bruce Howie, said his client's release should come within days, once his family is able to put together the money for his bail. Fariz's attorney could not be reached for comment.
A spokesman for the U.S Attorney's Office in Tampa said prosecutors were aware of the order but would not comment further.
Federal agents arrested Al-Arian and the three other men in February on charges that include conspiracy to commit racketeering and conspiracy to murder, maim or injure people on foreign soil, including U.S. citizens. Four other men charged remain free overseas.
The 121-page indictment does not accuse Al-Arian or the three other defendants of carrying out any terrorist attacks. The allegations focus on their role in supporting and raising funds for the PIJ, a terrorist group responsible for more than 100 deaths.
During a four-day bail hearing last month, federal prosecutors said agents taped tens of thousands of telephone conversations over several years while surveilling Al-Arian and the other men. None of the tapes have been played in court.
The defense attorneys argued that a number of factors should be weighed in deciding whether to grant bail, including their clients' strong ties to the community.
Al-Arian's attorney argued that his client has five U.S.-born children, no travel documents, no passport and no money overseas. Also, Al-Arian knew about the investigation for many months and did not flee the country before his arrest. Family and friends were willing to put up about $3.2-million in collateral for his bail.
Judge Pizzo agreed that all four men were "prominent leaders and models of civic involvement in their respective communities."
"Al-Arian's record of civic achievement, both on the local level and national stage, is particularly outstanding," he wrote.
But Al-Arian and Hammoudeh "hid and obfuscated their PIJ association," Pizzo wrote.
"This dichotomy, a private life versus a public one, however, reveals much about their character and the tenacity of their commitment to a pattern of deception toward achieving the PIJ's goals," Pizzo wrote.
"This assumption of the risks, this willingness to lose all for the PIJ's goals, is telling," the judge wrote later in the report. "It means each valued the PIJ more than family or lifestyle."
The case against Fariz was weakened by the prosecution's realization this week that some of the taped conversations attributed to him in the indictment were not with Abd Al Aziz Awda, a spiritual head of the PIJ.
The conversations, the prosecutors told the judge in a written supplement, were with an unnamed "PIJ activist."
"This change significantly alters the relevancy and significance of Fariz's comments," Pizzo wrote.
"The remaining unaffected (evidence) does not present a clear and convincing case that Fariz is a danger to others and the community."
As for Ballut, Pizzo wrote that aside from "militant rhetoric," not much connected him to the PIJ up to 1991, and his alleged contacts with PIJ were "sporadic" since then.
Given the evidence, the two men did not appear to be a danger to the community, he wrote.
Also, lawyers in the case have speculated that the trial would not take place for about two years, and once started, could take six months to a year.
"(Their) incentive to flee, particularly given the quality of the government's evidence against them, is not as strong as to outweigh the substantial conditions of release," Pizzo stated. "... Further, the potential length of pretrial incarceration under these circumstances is difficult to justify."
-- The Associated Press contributed to this report. Graham Brink can be reached at 226-3365 or email@example.com
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