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Evidence is lacking, Al-Arian defense says

Support for the Palestinians does not mean support of terror, the former USF professor's lawyer tells jurors.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published November 10, 2005


TAMPA - The case for Sami Al-Arian is over.

His attorney, Bill Moffitt, finished his closing argument on Al-Arian's behalf Wednesday morning. Then Stephen Bernstein spent the rest of the day giving most of his closing argument for co-defendant Sameeh Hammoudeh.

Two attorneys. Two different styles. And, two very different clients, according to the defense. But not the prosecution.

Throughout the case, federal prosecutors have said that these two men, and two others, on trial for conspiring to further terrorism are of one mind - set on furthering the violent aims of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Israel. They are, according to the government, "thugs" and "terrorists" - "a crime boss and his lieutenant" - who worked "shoulder to shoulder" to run a secret "Tampa cell" in order to raise money so the PIJ could continue to kill and maim.

But Wednesday was the defense's day, and attorneys for both men used it to say that the evidence does not support the government's claim that their clients worked together to raise and send money to support PIJ violence.

Moffitt's voice boomed in outrage as he jabbed an accusing finger in the direction of prosecutors and said, "I guess we're just supposed to believe what Ms. Krigsman said because she doesn't have evidence."

Bernstein, on the other hand, leaned casually on the podium in the afternoon and asked jurors to consider what the defense had shown them and prosecutors had not: "Who brought you evidence to show you where the money went and what it was used for? And who didn't?" he asked, slowly pulling out each word. He then began methodically listing dozens of charitable receipts from the occupied territories for money raised in Tampa.

Moffit's emotional close put jurors on the edge of their seats.

At times, he whispered. At other times, he shouted. He repeatedly pointed to his client, Al-Arian, and to prosecutors, his voice rising with indignation and breaking with emotion. Jurors sat up and leaned toward him as he spoke about "fairness and the great values of our society."

Bernstein's relaxed but very specific, methodical closing argument, however, appeared to caused jurors to sit back and consider what had landed Sameeh Hammoudeh in jail on a terrorism charge.

"The government has not offered any evidence that the people who received the money were somehow connected to the PIJ," said Bernstein calmly. "They argue: "There was money. We don't know what happened to it.' We offer proof of money that went to the blind, the needy and the hungry."

A former University of South Florida professor, Al-Arian and Hammoudeh are on trial with co-defendants Hatem Fariz and Ghassan Ballut, accused of using Islamic charities as fronts in a conspiracy to finance terrorist acts by PIJ, which has claimed responsibility for killing hundreds of people in Israel and the occupied territories.

While Bernstein's goal seemed to be to separate his client from any PIJ activity - including hobnobbing with Al-Arian - Moffitt's appeared to be to separate Al-Arian from any PIJ activity related to violence.

To this end, Moffitt began the day by reading a description of the PIJ by Palestinian Authority legislator Ziad Abu Amr: "The military wing of the PIJ is small and separate from other activities. The wing is autonomous from the political wing."

The point he hoped to make: The FBI wiretaps of Al-Arian's 1994 phone conversations in which he proposes cultural, charitable and political activities to the PIJ leadership, was not evidence that he furthered PIJ violence, because the military wing was separate.

But, said Mofitt, Al-Arian did "support the Palestinians' right to end the occupation." His comments, said the defense attorney, showed that he was in favor of "the Palestinian side of the war." But, warned Moffitt, verbal support did not mean Al-Arian, himself, furthered violence. To show what he meant, Mofitt asked jurors to look at the different reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict.

"One group cheered; the other was appalled. But those who cheered weren't guilty of violence themselves. They just had a different perspective," he said.

To further distance Al-Arian from violence, Moffitt talked about FBI wiretaps that showed Al-Arian's unsuccessful attempt to wrestle money away from a faction of the PIJ leadership in order to keep a Tampa forum on Palestine going.

He described the organization, the World & Islam Studies Enterprise, as the only "place in the world where Palestinians were given that level of humanity." His voice lowering to a whisper, Moffitt said that to call WISE's efforts "propaganda," as the government had, was to "cheapen the academic efforts of all who participated."

Yes, said Moffitt, Al-Arian was affiliated with the cultural, charitable arm of the PIJ, and he lied to the media about it because he was afraid WISE would be shut down. But he was never part of PIJ violence. He simply wanted, said Moffitt, to get money so WISE could keep telling "the Palestinian story in the United States."

"To believe that people need to be educated - how evil is that?" asked Moffitt.

Bernstein, too, talked about education and how much it meant to his client. As he neared his conclusion, he read from Sameeh Hammoudeh's 1995 USF graduate thesis on Israel and the occupied territories: "Cross-cultural dialogue should replace conflict. Diversity guarantees the evolution of human thought," Hammoudeh wrote.

Staff writer Meg Laughlin can be reached at 813 226-3365 or mlaughlin@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 10, 2005, 01:20:16]


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