Not guilty, but not over
A federal prosecution accusing Al-Arian and three other men of financing and promoting Middle East terrorism collapses.
By MEG LAUGHLIN, JENNIFER LIBERTO and JUSTIN GEORGE
Published December 6, 2005
TAMPA - The judge announced the verdicts, one by one, and Sami Al-Arian's eyes shifted to his family, then back to the bench to take in the words he had waited years to hear.
As U.S. District Judge James S. Moody read the last "not guilty," Al-Arian threw his head back, looked toward the ceiling and smiled. With tears pouring down his face, he took his glasses off and wiped his eyes with a tissue.
"God bless America," whispered his wife, Nahla, from the spectator section.
A massive federal prosecution against Al-Arian, 47, and three other men accused of financing and promoting Middle East terrorism collapsed Tuesday when jurors found Al-Arian not guilty on eight counts and a judge declared a mistrial on nine others.
Two of Al-Arian's co-defendants were acquitted entirely, and a third was acquitted on most counts, with jurors deadlocked on several others.
In the end, not a single guilty verdict was returned after a six-month trial that included more than 80 witnesses and 400 transcripts of intercepted phone conversations and faxes.
The verdicts were a major defeat for the federal government, which characterized Al-Arian's indictment as a major case against terrorism, and a victory for Al-Arian's attorneys, who considered the government's case so weak they they declined to put on a defense.
"Your nightmare is over. Your 10-year nightmare is over," Linda Moreno, a co-counsel for Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor, told her client at the trial's end.
But officials with the U.S. Justice Department, which investigated Al-Arian for years before filing charges, are still deciding whether to retry Al-Arian and co-defendant Hatem Fariz on charges for which the jury deadlocked.
One remaining charge against Al-Arian and Fariz, a racketeering conspiracy charge, carries a potential life sentence. Al-Arian was returned to the Hillsborough jail after the verdict. His attorneys could try to get him out on bail but said it was likely immigration officials would immediately pick him up for detention.
"The Justice Department has a strong track record of success in prosecuting terrorists and those who support terrorist activities. We remain focused on the important task at hand, which is to protect our country through our ongoing vigorous prosecution of terrorism cases," said Tasia Scolinos, director of public affairs for the U.S. Justice Department.
"While we respect the jury's verdict," she said, "we stand by the evidence we presented in court against Sami Al-Arian and his co-defendants."
Prosecutors in the case declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said Tuesday the agency would work with the Department of Homeland Security to deport Al-Arian, who is not a U.S. citizen, at the conclusion of legal proceedings.
Al-Arian attorney William Moffitt called that move "totally vindictive" since Al-Arian has not been convicted of any crimes.
Overall, however, Tuesday was a day of relief for Al-Arian, Fariz, 32, and the two other defendants, Ghassan Ballut, 43, and Sameeh Hammoudeh, 44, who were found not guilty of all charges.
"I'm feeling relief like a ton of bricks have been taken off your shoulders, but basically these last three weeks have been some of the most spiritual times in my life," Al-Arian told the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday night from the Hillsborough County Jail.
Al-Arian went from computer science professor to controversial international figure in the decade after a television documentary and articles in the Tampa Tribune raised questions about terrorist ties to a think tank he ran at USF.
FBI agents tapped his phones for nine years. They twice raided his home and offices, taking dozens of boxes of personal belongings. He was arrested in February 2003 and fired by USF in that same month. He spent the past three years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement, charged with 17 counts of terrorism-related activities. His trial began June 6, 2005. It ended Tuesday, exactly six months later.
Defense attorneys had shuddered at a trial in Tampa, fearing years of publicity would make it impossible to seat an impartial jury. They pressed repeatedly for a change of venue, which was denied. But Tuesday they praised the jurors, saying the system had worked.
"I believe the government didn't have a case," Al-Arian said after the verdict. "I knew that, but I hoped the jury would be able to see that."
As it turned out, the great majority of jurors wanted to acquit Al-Arian and the three co-defendants on all charges. But, they say, two to three others held out for conviction, which resulted in a hung jury on a combined 17 counts for Fariz and Al-Arian.
"Usually, there were 10 of us for acquittal on the charges, sometimes nine of us," said Ron, a juror from Pasco County who did not want his last name used. Because of the nature of the terrorism case, the government kept jurors' identities sealed from the public.
"Of course, we hate terrorism," said Ron. "But the evidence making these guys terrorists just wasn't there."
In the beginning, said several jurors, six of them were leaning toward convictions on most of the charges for all four defendants. They were charged in a 51-count indictment of conspiring to raise money for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for hundreds of deaths in Israel and the Occupied Territories.
Out of these conspiracy charges, which carried sentences of 20 years to life, came charges of money laundering, obstruction of justice, illegal interstate commerce and immigration fraud. Hammoudeh and Ballut were acquitted of all charges. Fariz and Al-Arian were acquitted on most of the lesser charges. But the jury was deadlocked on Count One, which was conspiring to conduct the affairs of an enterprise for illegal purposes - raising money for the PIJ.
"Ten of us wanted to acquit them on all charges, but two wouldn't tell us what the evidence was to convict, but wouldn't go along with acquittal," said Ron.
At one point during the deliberations, while looking at mountains of transcripts, a female juror from St. Petersburg who asked that her name not be used said she exclaimed, "An awful lot of trees went into this evidence. But for what purpose, I don't know."
Jurors say they were strongly affected by the jury instructions. In particular, they kept returning to these words: "Our law does not criminalize beliefs or mere membership in an organization. A person who is in sympathy with the legitimate aim of an organization but does not intend to accomplish that aim by a resort to illegal activity is not punished for adherence to lawful purposes of speech."
While they knew that Al-Arian had phone conversations with PIJ leadership, jurors said, they still had trouble finding proof of illegal acts, since his conversations occurred before the PIJ was declared a Foreign Terrorist Organization, making association illegal.
There was much discussion among jurors over what prosecutors considered one of their best pieces of evidence: a 1995 letter Al-Arian wrote to a Kuwaiti legislator requesting money so actions, similar to a suicide bombing in Gaza, "could continue."
The letter was found in Al-Arian's house during an FBI search, and prosecutors frequently mentioned it as proof of Al-Arian's criminal intent.
But Ron, the juror, noted the original was found in Al-Arian's house, meaning it could not have been sent. And no government witnesses ever testified that it was sent.
"The evidence wasn't there to put a guilty verdict on it," said Juror 112, a 40-year-old truck driver from Lakeland named Todd.
"People assume. They assume guilt," said Todd. "People really need to think about things before they make a decision. You really need to get the facts first.
"I sat in that room for six months. Until you've sat through something like this . . . you cannot sit in your car or at your house and determine guilt."
Born in Kuwait of Palestinian heritage, Al-Arian was well-known for his Palestinian activism locally. Suspicion about his links to terrorists arose in 1994, after he was questioned in a TV documentary called Jihad in America, and later in a series of stories in the Tampa Tribune.
That suspicion intensified in late 1995 after Ramadan Shallah, a man Al-Arian hired to run a Tampa think tank known as the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, left the country and became the new head of the PIJ.
When the U.S. Patriot Act and a court ruling cleared the way for greater sharing of information between intelligence agencies and law enforcement, Al-Arian was arrested on the lengthy federal conspiracy indictment.
During the trial, jurors heard testimony ranging from a Palestinian legislator to the father of an American girl killed by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Israel.
Beyond the question of whether Al-Arian and those associated with him violated federal law, the trial did shed some light on unresolved questions about Al-Arian.
Wiretap conversations clearly show that, during the time he was presenting himself as an independent advocate of Palestinian rights, he was, in fact, deeply involved with PIJ, proposing changes in their leadership structure, overall strategy and financial management. Those discussions did not include talk of violent acts.
Moreover, evidence showed that top employees of WISE, including Al-Arian's brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, were receiving payments from PIJ while they were working in Tampa for the think tank and the university.
After five months of prosecution evidence, Al-Arian's defense attorneys caused a stir Oct. 27 when they rested without putting on a defense.
"Because there is a document called the U.S. Constitution - unless we're about to repeal it - it protects Dr. Al-Arian's right to speak, and the government has not proven that Dr. Al-Arian has done anything but speak. . . . The fact that Dr. Al-Arian is a Palestinian deprives him of no civil rights," said Moffitt, explaining the decision.
The remaining defendants' cases took far less time than the prosecution, and jurors began their deliberations Nov. 15. The jurors - seven men and five women, plus two alternates - made their way through an extremely complicated 51-count indictment involving four different defendants, which required 95 pages of jury instructions. Their deliberations had been quiet until Monday, when they told the judge they had reached verdicts for two defendants, but were deadlocked on two others.
Then, Tuesday, one juror sent a message to the judge saying she felt pressured and coerced to change her decision. The judge asked the jurors to see if they could come to a unanimous decision without compromising their beliefs. When they later said they couldn't, he declared a mistrial on the deadlocked counts.
Al-Arian's attorneys say if he is cleared of all charges and allowed to remain in the country, he has plans for the next chapter in his life: He wants to become a lawyer.
Times staff writers Vanessa Gezari, Brady Dennis, Rebecca Catalanello, Kevin Graham, Bill Coats, Michael Van Sickler, Melanie Ave and Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
[Last modified December 6, 2005, 23:18:02]
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