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Al-Arian judge allows Web sites as evidence

Prosecutors win a round, but the defense is granted time to review the material.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published September 23, 2005


TAMPA - Prosecutors dealt a harsh blow to defendants in the trial of Sami Al-Arian Thursday, when the federal judge allowed into evidence stacks of Internet information on Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Previously, U.S. District Judge James S. Moody questioned whether the information, taken from the computers of defendants Ghassan Ballut and Hatem Fariz after a 2003 FBI seizure, could contribute to building a case against them and Al-Arian.

Thursday, the judge ruled it could.

Defense attorneys argued repeatedly that it was not clear where the Web sites originated or whether defendants ever read everything on them, as prosecutors allege. But Moody overruled their objections, agreeing with prosecutors that the information may show defendants' knowledge of the terrorist activities of the PIJ.

As the afternoon wore on, a tense courtroom grew tenser when Moody stopped defense attorneys in the middle of explaining objections to tell them he'd heard enough.

At one point, after questioning how long Al-Arian could be held responsible for conspiracy relating to the acts of the PIJ - especially given that he was in solitary confinement after early 2003 - attorney Bill Moffitt told the judge: "That's my argument, and I don't want to beat it to death."

Moody dryly replied: "Too late."

Argument among defense attorneys and prosecutors and the judge - who frequently sided with prosecutor Terry Zitek - centered on a PIJ claim of responsibility for a 1990 violent attack. The claim appeared on a 2004 Web site a year after the four defendants were arrested and indicted.

Fariz's attorney, Allison Guagliardo, told the judge that 14-year-old information on a 2004 Web site was "a library," not relevant to the defendants. But Moody disagreed.

The four defendants - including Sameeh Hammoudeh - are charged with conspiring to raise funds for the PIJ, which has claimed responsibility for over 100 deaths in Israel and the occupied territories.

Moffitt argued that it was irrelevant whether the defendants read about PIJ violent acts on Web sites. He told the judge: "There is absolutely no evidence in this case to show that any of these defendants were part of the military (violent) wing of the PIJ."

Again, the judge stopped him short: "And you are sharing your closing argument with me for what purpose?"

As the afternoon continued - with the jury absent - prosecutors became increasingly jovial, while defense attorneys sank farther into their seats. At the end of the day, the judge told glum defense attorneys they could have until Oct. 3 for their computer forensic expert to review the new evidence.

Staff writer Justin George contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at 813 226-3365 or mlaughlin@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 23, 2005, 02:45:59]


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