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Al-Arian testimony gets dramatic

A father and a friend tell the court about a young woman's death in a suicide bombing in Israel.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published June 17, 2005

 
[Family photo]
Stephen Flatow testified Thursday about the death of his daughter, Alisa, 20, in a 1995 suicide bombing.

TAMPA - He buried her in New Jersey. She was 20 years old.

Stephen Flatow told a tense courtroom Thursday about the phone call that came one Sunday morning 10 years ago: His oldest child, in a religious study program in Jerusalem, had been critically injured in a suicide bombing.

Flatow flew all night and landed in Israel, to find his daughter in the corner of a hospital room, unconscious and on a ventilator. Not sure it was his child, because she was bloated with her head shaved, he lifted the sheet to check her toes.

"She had two webbed toes ... which we used to kid her about when she swam," he said. "It was her."

Federal prosecutors asked Flatow to testify about his daughter's murder because they hope to connect it, as well as other murders in Israel, to Sami Al-Arian and three other defendants now on trial. They are charged with conspiring to provide "material support" to Palestinian Islamic Jihad violence in Israel. The PIJ claimed responsibility for the suicide bus bombing.

The father's account of his daughter's death was the first dramatic moment for the prosecution after two weeks of plodding through details of how evidence was collected during FBI searches of the defendants' homes and offices. The prosecution hopes to use this evidence to connect the defendants to fund-raising for PIJ violence.

So far, though, no evidence in the trial has linked the defendants to raising money for PIJ, much less to funding PIJ violence. The government says this link will come through tapes of defendants' telephone conversations and faxes collected during years of FBI wiretapping.

The indictment says that on the same day as the suicide bus bombing, Ramadan Shallah, who left Tampa to become leader of the PIJ seven months later, received a fax on PIJ letterhead announcing the death of the man who carried out the bombing.

A minute later, the indictment says, Shallah faxed the announcement to two Tampa-based organizations, World & Islam Studies Enterprise and Islamic Committee for Palestine. Both organizations were founded by Al-Arian more than five years before, and several of the defendants worked for one or both, at some point, over the years.

Prosecutors will present these faxes as evidence in the coming months.

After Stephen Flatow testified, his daughter's friend Kesari Ruza testified. Ruza said that she, Alisa Flatow and another friend were hit near Kfar Darom, while riding on a bus that was full. She was dozing and didn't realize what had happened, Ruza told the jury.

"Some kind of sound woke me up. Alisa's head fell toward me. Her eyes were rolled back in her head. Her hands were curled in. ... There was a pelting sound. The bus continued to drive. ... Blood was everywhere. On us, on our bags. ... We got off the bus ... and ran into a field, where we lay with our stomachs down in the grass. Someone carried Alisa off the bus."

A pall fell over the courtroom, and defense attorneys, who usually vigorously cross-examine government witnesses, said nothing. When U.S. District Judge James S. Moody told everyone to take a 15-minute break, none of the usual chatter erupted. Lawyers, spectators and jurors sat in silence.

After the day's proceedings, Al-Arian's attorney, William Moffitt, told a group of reporters outside the courthouse: "I've always said it's not Mr. Al-Arian's fault and nothing that happened in the courtroom today changes that."

While Kesari Ruza was on the witness stand, prosecutor Cherie Krigsman played a video of the aftermath of the bus explosion. In it, people wailed and screamed, running in all directions. Frantic rescue workers carried bloody victims - mostly Israeli soldiers on leave - from the singed metal frame of the bus. Among them was Alisa Flatow, 20, who with her two pals missed an earlier connection and ended up on the public bus with the soldiers.

Ruza pointed out Alisa, lying on the parched ground. She wore a white T-shirt and denim skirt, soaked in blood.

Earlier, her father had told the jury, "We buried her in that."

[Last modified June 17, 2005, 00:34:18]


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