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Not guilty but not over

In a stinging defeat for the federal government, Sami Al-Arian was not found guilty of any charges.

Published December 6, 2005

TAMPA - For more than five months, jurors in the case of a former professor accused of helping lead a Palestinian terrorist group reviewed hundreds of documents, heard from dozens of witnesses and watched videos in which the defendants appeared to speak glowingly of suicide bombers.

But it wasn't enough. Sami Al-Arian was acquitted Tuesday on nearly half the charges against him, and the jury deadlocked on the rest in a stinging defeat for the federal government. His case was seen as one of the biggest courtroom tests yet of the Patriot Act's expanded search-and-surveillance powers.

Al-Arian and three co-defendants were accused of being the communications arm of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, spreading the word and raising money that went toward suicide attacks that have killed hundreds in Israel.

But the jury could not convict any of the four on the charges laid out in a complex, 51-count indictment. Al-Arian was acquitted of eight of the 17 counts against him, including a key charge of conspiring to maim and murder people overseas.

A male juror, whose name was being kept secret by the court, said the case came down to lack of proof: "I didn't see the evidence."

Al-Arian, 47, wept after the verdicts, and his attorney Linda Moreno hugged him. He will remain jailed until prosecutors decide whether to retry him on the deadlocked counts.

Two co-defendants, Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Zayed Ballut, were acquitted of all charges. A third, Hatem Naji Fariz, was found not guilty of 25 counts, and jurors deadlocked on the remaining eight.

"While we respect the jury's verdict, we stand by the evidence we presented in court," Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said.

Al-Arian's wife, Nahla, celebrated with relatives and supporters outside the courthouse. "I'm ecstatic," she said. "My husband is an outspoken Palestinian activist who loved this country, believed in the system, and the system did not fail him."

Moreno said she hoped prosecutors would take into account the "overwhelming number of not-guilty verdicts" against the defendants in deciding whether to try him again. She said she will ask the court soon to release Al-Arian from jail.

Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida computer science professor, was considered one of the most important terrorist figures to be brought to trial in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks. His indictment in 2003 was hailed by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft as one of the first triumphs of the Patriot Act, which was enacted in the weeks after Sept. 11.

The Patriot Act gave the government greatly expanded powers and broke down the wall between foreign intelligence investigations and domestic law enforcement. In the Al-Arian case, officials said, it allowed separate FBI investigations - one of them a yearslong secret foreign intelligence probe of the professor's activities - to be combined and all the evidence used against him.

Al-Arian, a Palestinian who was born in Kuwait, has lived in the United States since 1975. He was granted permanent-resident status in 1989 and denied U.S. citizenship in 1996. He was fired by the university shortly after being indicted.

The federal jury deliberated 13 days after listening to often-plodding testimony about faxes and wiretapped phone calls during a trial that lasted more than five months.

Prosecutors said Al-Arian and other members of the terrorist organization used the university to give them cover as teachers and students, and held meetings under the guise of academic conferences.

Prosecutor Cherie Krigsman likened the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to the Mafia and named Al-Arian as one of its "crime bosses."

The defendants said that although they were vocal advocates in the United States for the Palestinian cause and may have celebrated news of the terrorist group's attacks, the government had no proof that they planned or knew about any violence. They said the money they raised and sent to the Palestinian territories was for legitimate charities.

"This shows we have faith in the American justice system," said Ahmed Bedier, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which had supported Al-Arian. "This has shown that America is not only the best country in the world, but the jurors proved that we also have the best justice system."

The case was built on hundreds of pages of transcripts of wiretapped phone calls and faxes, records of money moving through accounts, documents seized from the defendants' homes and offices, and their own words on video. At times, the participants appeared to speak glowingly of the Palestinian "martyrs" who carried out suicide attacks.

The jury also heard from the father of Alisa Flatow, a New Jersey student killed in a 1995 bus bombing carried out by the terrorist group in Gaza.

Five others indicted in the case, including Al-Arian's brother-in-law, have not been arrested. The brother-in-law was deported in 2002, and the others also are out of the country.

[Last modified December 6, 2005, 19:47:02]

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