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Al-Arian's new lawyer argues on old issues

Published November 8, 2003

TAMPA - Sami Al-Arian's new defense attorney William Moffitt attended his first hearing in front of federal Magistrate Judge Thomas McCoun on Friday.

The renowned Moffitt set the tone for his defense with a string of pointed questions and demands. The low-key McCoun gave little ground.

The hearing rehashed mostly old issues: When, and in what form, prosecutors will hand over evidence to the defense attorneys; and more discussion about the conditions at Coleman Federal Correction Complex, where Al-Arian and another defendant await their January 2005 trial.

Federal agents arrested Al-Arian and three others in February on charges that they supported, promoted and raised funds for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group considered responsible for more than 100 deaths.

Federal agents taped thousands of hours of telephone conversations over several years while surveilling Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor, and the other men. Most of the conversations are in Arabic.

The prosecutors have handed over taped copies of the conversations in batches. They said Friday they appear about half-done.

Moffitt acknowledged the tapes were important. But he expressed concern that they don't become such a main focus that the rest of the evidence, including warrant affidavits and other documents, get "dumped" on the defense attorneys all at once.

"I certainly think we can do more than one thing at one time in this case," he said. "The defense ought to have as much as they can as soon as they can."

Moffitt also objected to conditions at Coleman prison, a gripe McCoun has heard since Al-Arian was denied bail in April.

Moffitt said the prison has made it difficult for Al-Arian to celebrate the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. He is not allowed to determine the proper times to pray and is not fed in accordance with the rules of Ramadan, Moffitt said.

Al-Arian, who remains in the prison's special housing unit, is not being given the opportunity to fully participate in his defense, Moffitt said. The conditions are so "coercive" that Moffitt said he will hire a psychiatrist sometime in the future to examine Al-Arian to see if his cognitive capacity is diminished.

The prison was set up to punish criminals, to hold the "worst of the worst," not someone presumed innocent, said Moffitt, who punctuated his frustration by falling back in his chair.

McCoun agreed that Coleman was more regimented than some of the local jails. But he added that Coleman officials have been responsive to his requests regarding Al-Arian's confinement.

A prison official who attended the hearing told Moffitt and Steven Bernstein, the lawyer for co-defendant Sameeh Hammoudeh, that they could have access to their clients seven days a week and at any reasonable time. They can also bring in legal materials including documents to show their clients.

That came as a surprise to followers of the case, as many of the lawyers have consistently complained about the short visiting hours and the rigid regulations about what they could bring in.

"That was a shock to me," Bernstein said. "We'll see if that is actually the way it happens from now on."

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