By MELANIE AVE
Published December 6, 2005
Q: What did the jury decide?
A: It acquitted Sami Al-Arian of eight of 17 counts against him, including one pivotal charge that he conspired to maim and murder people overseas. Because they could not reach a decision on the other counts, which included charges he aided terrorists, the judge declared a mistrial in those counts. Two co-defendants, Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Zayed Ballut, were acquitted of all charges. A fourth, Hatem Naji Fariz, was found not guilty of 25 counts and jurors deadlocked on eight other charges.
Q: Why were they on trial?
A: The federal government accused them of being a part of a Tampa terrorist cell that played a leadership role in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, considered a terrorist group by the State Department. Prosecutors said the men, as teachers and students at the University of South Florida, used the school to camouflage their work raising money to support terrorist activities against Israel.
Q: What is the Palestinian Islamic Jihad?
A: Several militant groups use the name Islamic Jihad. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad operates in Israel and the Palestinian-controlled areas of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. It was formed in the late 1970s by Palestinian students who were inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution. The PIJ is committed to the destruction of Israel through holy war and the creation of an Islamic Palestinian state. It regards terrorism as a way to ignite the struggle that will lead to a confrontation between Arab and Israeli armies. A relatively small and shadowy organization, it is composed of loosely affiliated factions. The strongest is the Shikaki Faction, named after a slain leader. Since 1995, the PIJ has been led by Ramadan Shallah, who used to work at USF and a think tank founded by Al-Arian. It has been supported by Iran and aided to some extent by Syria.
Q: What does the jury's verdict mean?
A: In short, the government did not prove the four men's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt on any charge. On the counts in which jurors deadlocked for two of the men, including Al-Arian, prosecutors can pursue new trials.
Q: Why the mixed verdicts?
A: Several jurors said that, despite the massive evidence produced by the government, there was not enough proof to support convicting the four men. Said one: "The dots didn't connect." One juror called the trial difficult and complex. The government offered 80 witnesses, a fair amount of dry testimony and 400 transcripts of wiretapped conversations and faxes. Much of the government's case was circumstantial. As the trial progressed, even prosecutors agreed with defense attorneys that there were no direct links between the defendants and violence.
Q: What will happen now to Al-Arian and the others?
A: Al-Arian, 47, remains in jail, where he and Hammoudeh have been held without bail since their arrests in February 2003. While prosecutors decide whether to retry him on the deadlocked charges, his attorney said she will ask the judge to release him from jail. Pam McCullough, spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said her agency is working with the Department of Homeland Security to deport Al-Arian. "He is not a U.S. citizen," she said. "ICE is working to put Sami Al-Arian in deportation proceedings at the conclusion of his criminal trial." When asked why, she said, "He is not a U.S. citizen."
Fariz, a 32-year-old former office manager who was acquitted on some charges but not others, remains free on bail. The former Spring Hill resident now lives in Chicago. Prosecutors may decide to pursue the remaining charges against him as well. Ballut, 43, who was cleared of all charges, is free. He lives in Tinley Park, Ill., and owns a small business. Also free is Hammoudeh, 44, a former Arabic instructor and doctoral student. He and his wife will soon be deported back to Ramallah, Palestine, as part of a plea agreement in June in which the couple was convicted on federal tax, immigration and mortgage fraud charges.
Q: Can Al-Arian get his job back as a tenured computer engineering professor at USF, which fired him in 2003?
A: A statement released by the university after the verdicts said: "USF ended Sami Al-Arian's employment three years ago, and we do not expect anything to change that."
Q: What has become of Mazen Al-Najjar, Al-Arian's brother-in-law who worked with him at the World Islamic Studies Enterprise?
A: Al-Najjar, 48, was deported to Lebanon in August 2002, after spending 31/2 years in jail on secret evidence the U.S. government said linked him to terrorism. He was never charged. A month after Al-Najjar landed in Lebanon, officials there deported him to an undisclosed country where he worked as a translator. His wife joined him with their three children. On Tuesday, his sister, Nahla Al-Arian, Sami Al-Arian's wife, declined to say where her brother is living. "He is in a friendly Arab country," she said.
Q: Are there implications from the trial's outcome on others accused of being involved with terrorists?
A: The answer, so far, is mixed. The trial was considered by many to be the biggest test so far of the Patriot Act, which expanded the government's power to search citizens and use surveillance, and was passed in the emotional weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. It allowed the government to marry its foreign and domestic intelligence capabilities.
David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who represented Al-Najjar in an earlier deportation case during the 1990s, said the case shows the government cannot convict people who are merely associated with terrorists.
"When you fight the war on terror," he said, "you need to focus on terrorists, not on people whose political associations you find distasteful."
After the verdicts, the Justice Department released a statement touting its "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."
[Last modified December 6, 2005, 21:33:03]
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