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Al-Arian associate may be freed

Instead of being deported, Sameeh Hammoudeh will leave the country voluntarily, immigration officials say.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published January 21, 2006


TAMPA - If everything goes as promised by immigration supervisors, Sameeh Hammoudeh, his wife and six children will be on their way to Amman, Jordan, next week - finally.

In early December, Hammoudeh, one of four co-defendants in the Sami Al-Arian terrorism trial, was acquitted of all charges that he conspired to send money to Palestinian Islamic Jihad to further violence in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

He was also acquitted of a charge that he committed immigration fraud.

Nevertheless, he remained imprisoned because immigration officials said they didn't accept the jury verdict.

But that changed quickly Thursday morning.

Barbara Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, confirmed that Hammoudeh "has been ordered removed" but would not say when because of security concerns.

Hammoudeh said the shift in his status occurred after a St. Petersburg Times story Thursday pointed out his legal dilemma.

At 8:30 that morning, Hammoudeh's wife, Nadia, received a phone call from an immigration official. She says he told her that officials were concerned about "the media attention" and wanted to know if she and her husband would agree to a "voluntary order of removal."

This means instead of being deported, the Hammoudehs could buy commercial airline tickets for their family of eight to Amman, Jordan, and leave the country next week.

Nadia asked her husband's attorney, Stephen Bernstein, to talk to the immigration supervisor. Bernstein said the supervisor confirmed Nadia's account.

"It's true," Bernstein said. "It looks as if Sameeh Hammoudeh will finally be released."

Bernstein tried to get Hammoudeh released on bail during an immigration hearing Wednesday, but the government objected and a judge denied the bail request. An immigration spokeswoman told the Times that officials still believed "Hammoudeh has ties to terrorism," despite the jury's acquittal.

Friday, Sameeh Hammoudeh told the Times he was "happy but cautious about the news," adding, "I just hope immigration officials keep their word."

Hammoudeh's legal situation was complicated by the fact that before the trial he and his wife pleaded guilty to tax fraud for failing to report $8,027 of income over 11 years. Under the plea agreement, they would be deported but not jailed. Hammoudeh's lawyer in the tax case, Steve Crawford, said the charges were brought in an attempt to pressure his client into testifying against Al-Arian.

On Feb. 20, 2003, Hammoudeh was arrested and charged as a co-defendant with Al-Arian and others, accused of supporting terrorism through the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He was incarcerated without bond, and has been behind bars ever since.

On Dec. 6, Hammoudeh and co-defendant Gassan Ballut were acquitted of all charges. Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor, was acquitted on eight charges, with a mistrial declared on nine others because jurors could not agree on a verdict. Co-defendant Hatem Fariz was acquitted on 25 charges, with a mistrial declared on eight charges.

After his acquittal, Hammoudeh and his family thought he would be quickly released, and then deported to the Middle East. But immigration officials kept him in jail and moved the deportation date farther and farther away, saying details were not worked out.

Next week, if things go as expected, Sameeh Hammoudeh will be escorted from a county jail in Bradenton to Tampa International Airport where he will be reunited with his wife and children. When the family of eight boards the plane, they will walk away from their comfortable four-bedroom home in Temple Terrace and 13 years of furniture and possessions, taking with them only the luggage they are allowed to carry on the plane.

"I cannot think about leaving all of our things behind," said Nadia Hammoudeh. "I am only thinking about having Sameeh back with us - finally."

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

[Last modified January 21, 2006, 01:33:17]


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