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Al-Arian trial's end in sight after 5 months

The defense rests its case. Closing arguments are scheduled to begin Monday in the conspiracy trial.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published November 2, 2005

TAMPA - Suddenly, unexpectedly, it was over.

Tuesday afternoon, nearly five months into the conspiracy trial of Sami Al-Arian, attorneys mounting a defense for the last two co-defendants rested their cases.

The prosecution put on a brief rebuttal. And with that, much to the surprise of many in the courtroom, U.S. District Judge James S. Moody smiled at the jury and said, "That concluded the testimony."

Before dismissing jurors for a long weekend, he warned them interest in the trial was about to spike, and they should avoid any news or talk about the case. Then, he sent them home for the rest of the week while attorneys argue over jury instructions and legal motions.

As soon as jurors left, Al-Arian's attorney, Bill Moffitt, walked over and shook the hand of each of the four federal prosecutors.

"We have one more battle left," Moffitt told prosecutor Terry Furr, referring to closing arguments, set to begin Monday.

Attorneys estimate their final words will take three to four days and the case should go to the jury by the end of next week.

The testimony ended with Hatem Fariz's defense team putting on one witness - Fariz's wife, Manal Ramadan, who said she knew nothing about her husband's fundraising activities in Tampa. To counter, prosecutors called an FBI agent who testified she questioned Ramadan on Feb. 20, 2003, and Ramadan said she had "seen fundraising at the mosque in Tampa ... and that the money went to charity."

A former University of South Florida professor, Al-Arian, Fariz, Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Ballut are on trial in federal court, accused of conspiring to raise money for the violent acts of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of people in Israel and the occupied territories. Defense attorneys say none of the money went for PIJ violence; it went for charity in the occupied territories.

Only two of the four defendants have put on any defense. Lawyers for Al-Arian and Ballut chose to rest after the prosecution finished putting on its case. They plan to attack the government's evidence and testimony in closing arguments.

The defense mounted by the other two defendants, Hammoudeh and Fariz, has been brief.

Last week, a University of South Florida anthropology professor, Trevor Purcell, testified that Hammoudeh was a graduate student of his, and was diligent in his studies.

One government claim has been that an Islamic school where Hammoudeh worked was a front for terrorist fundraising. His daughter and another student at the school testified in his defense that the school's curriculum was challenging and prepared them for college.

This week, Hammoudeh's father took the witness stand to bolster the defense assertion that money his son raised went for legitimate charitable purposes in the occupied territories. Where jurors think the money went could be decisive. If they think it went to hurt and kill people, as prosecutors say, defendants will likely be found guilty. If jurors think it went to help the needy, they could be freed, unless they're found guilty of lesser immigration charges. Or if jurors can't decide, the case may have to be tried again.

The government's case has been circumstantial, with no evidence linking the defendants to raising money to support the violent acts of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But prosecutors say that any money sent to the PIJ - whether intended for the charitable arm or not - helps all aspects of the organization.

Much of the day Tuesday was taken up with the testimony of Taha Hammoudeh, father of Sameeh Hammoudeh, who was questioned by prosecutor Terry Zitek. As the day went on, with the father describing the illnesses and families of people receiving money, Zitek appeared increasingly exasperated.

"How do you know the money went to orphans and not to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad?" Zitek asked.

"There is no (Islamic Jihad) in our area - not in Ramallah," answered Taha Hammoudeh.

The father said the money was distributed about once a month to needy children, widows and the sick, people identified by refugee camp leaders, community or school officials. Zitek said receipts showed that money earmarked for orphans went to widows, instead, suggesting the practice had been deceptive.

"You don't give the money directly to the orphans. You give it to the women who care for them," said the father.

Later, Kevin Beck, attorney for Fariz, showed jurors a document indicating Fariz learned of a suicide bombing from a Middle Eastern news report. This was aimed at refuting the government claim that he had inside information about terrorist actions.

This and more will be argued by defense attorneys and prosecutors next week during closing arguments. Then, at the end of the week, the judge will read between 50 and 90 pages of instructions to the jury before deliberations begin.

[Last modified November 2, 2005, 00:46:18]


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