Though he won a jury's unanimous acquittal on terrorism charges, Sameeh Hammoudeh is being sent to Jordan with family.
By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published January 23, 2006
[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Nadia Hammoudeh holds son Muhammad, 4, who has grown up mostly without his father's presence.
Immigration officials said they did not agree with the jury's December decision and kept Sameeh Hammoudeh in jail, awaiting deportation set this week.
TAMPA - After spending almost three years in prison because of terrorism charges, Sameeh Hammoudeh was acquitted after a six-month trial.
Eight weeks after that not guilty verdict, it appears he will finally be released from jail this week and reunited with his wife and children, as they begin a 33-hour journey to Amman, Jordan, to join family.
"At last," Hammoudeh said.
The strange odyssey, which brings Hammoudeh to this latest juncture, began Feb. 20, 2003, when he was arrested at dawn at his North Tampa home. He was indicted for being a terrorist, labeled a "high-security threat" and placed in solitary confinement.
After a jury acquitted him in a Tampa federal courtroom in December, Hammoudeh remained in jail awaiting deportation because Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said they did not agree with the jury's decision.
"I don't understand. Even if you are acquitted, the government is like wild wolves picking at you - this in a country with people full of love and mercy," he said.
But it appears his nightmare is about to end, with the immigration announcement that he has been issued "a final order of removal."
The nightmare began on that chilly February morning almost three years ago when eight FBI agents banged on the front door of his home in North Tampa. His six children were asleep. His wife, Nadia, woke them, telling them "the termite men are here," to keep them from being afraid.
But the older girls caught on quickly.
"How can you do this to us?" Doaa, then 15, asked.
It is a question her father is still asking. "If I had done something, I could accept what happened to me. But I have done nothing. Nothing," he said.
The agents moved quickly, filling dozens of boxes with books. They took the Koran, but left the Bible. They took a book on Palestinian history but left others, including those by New York Times reporter Thomas Friedman.
They took the Disney videos but left the "Judy Moody" series belonging to Noor, then 7. Magazines went, as did photo albums and stacks of papers, including hundreds of charitable receipts from the West Bank.
Federal prosecutors called the receipts "plain phony." The government said Hammoudeh, now 45, was really sending money to the occupied territories of Israel to finance the suicide bombings of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for hundreds of deaths there. Prosecutors also said the PIJ was paying a salary of $1,000 a month to Hammoudeh. The government charged him, along with Sami Al-Arian, Ghassan Ballut and Hatem Fariz, with furthering terrorism.
But the six-month trial told a different story. Under cross-examination, FBI agent Michael Wysocki conceded that there was no evidence the money Hammoudeh sent overseas went to the PIJ.
The agent also said there was information to contradict the government claim that Hammoudeh received a salary from the PIJ. And, finally, Hammoudeh's father, Taha Hammoudeh, produced receipt duplicates from West Bank charities that prosecutors had called "phony."
When the 12-person jury began deliberating, they took several hours to silently examine the evidence. Then, the foreperson asked for a show of hands to determine the verdict on Hammoudeh. Without hesitation, all 12 hands shot up for acquittal on all counts.
"Without talking about it, we had each made up our minds," said juror Deaundre, who asked that his last name be omitted.
Hammoudeh, a child of the stateless, was born to a family swept aside in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, as Jews turned to Palestine as theirs. Decades of attack and counterattack followed. Hammoudeh's father sketched the family's background in court testimony.
In the spring of 1948, the family was forced from its home by Israeli soldiers, when the town was cleared of Palestinians to make room for Jews settling in the new Israel.
At the same time, Leo Bernstein, the father of Hammoudeh's attorney, Stephen Bernstein, emigrated to the United States after surviving four years in the Nazi concentration camp Dachau. Almost 50 years later, when Stephen Bernstein considered representing Sameeh Hammoudeh, the lawyer went to his father for permission. Leo Bernstein, 86, told his son: "I want you to represent him because I know what it is to be arrested and persecuted for nothing."
In 1948, the displaced Hammoudehs went to a small town in the West Bank where Sameeh was born in 1960. Sameeh went to a local university and ran a youth program.
In late 1992, at the recommendation of Khalil Shikaki, who teaches at Brandeis University in Boston, Hammoudeh came to graduate school at the University of South Florida. Shikaki, a respected Middle Eastern scholar, is the brother of a PIJ founder. Because of this, prosecutors said Hammoudeh's friendship with Shikaki was conspiratorial, though no evidence backed the claim.
After Hammoudeh came to Tampa, his wife and three girls joined him a few months later. Three more children were born in Tampa, where Hammoudeh worked at World and Islam Studies Enterprise, a USF organization that held forums on the Middle East. Husband and wife also taught at the Islamic Academy of Florida, where their older children went to school.
Both the organization and the academy were founded by Al-Arian, a USF professor whose phones were tapped by the FBI in early 1994, because of suspicions that he was connected to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The FBI recorded Al-Arian talking to PIJ leaders in 1994 and searched his home and offices in November 1995, when Ramadan Shallah, the former director of the World and Islam Studies Enterprise left Tampa to become the head of the PIJ. But it was not until eight years later on that February day in 2003 that FBI agents arrested Al-Arian, along with Hammoudeh, Ballut and Fariz.
"The agents told me I was not the target," Hammoudeh said. But a year later, prosecutors charged him in a separate case with omitting information from visa forms and not paying $8,027 in income taxes over 11 years. Hammoudeh agreed to a guilty plea when the government pulled his wife in.
"When they threatened to leave my children without parents, I gave in," he said.
In June 2005, Hammoudeh and his wife pleaded guilty to tax fraud. They agreed to be deported with no jail time. But now immigration officials say they will be "removed" instead.
Steve Crawford, Hammoudeh's attorney in the tax evasion case, said, "It was all about getting Hammoudeh to talk about Sami Al-Arian."
But Hammoudeh never did.
During his three-year incarceration, he has been allowed one, two-hour contact visit with his wife and six children. In October 2003, Hammoudeh went to the visitors' cafeteria in the prison and hugged them. For all other visits, they have looked at each other through a clear partition and talked on a phone.
"My family is the best. It has been psychological torture to be separated from them," he said.
"My baba lives behind glass," said Muhammad, 4, who can't remember ever touching his father.
For the behind-the-glass visits, Hammoudeh holds up newspaper photos for his small children so they have something to talk about that takes them away from prison. Alaa, 7, recalled a poem her dad started: "A guy in a boat had a goat." Noor, 10, calls the prison "baba's office." Hanan, 15, surfs the Web for news about the case.
On Feb. 20, 2003, when FBI agents entered Hammoudeh's home on an oak-lined street near USF, the tufted titmouse on the kitchen clock chirped five times, signaling 5 a.m.
With the family huddled in the living room, agents walked past the parents' "teacher of the year" plaques in the family room. They snapped pictures as they went through the French doors into the screened pool area, where the family played Marco Polo on Sundays.
Doaa, now 17, remembers an agent's answer when she asked how they could do this to them. His reply, which she characterizes as "calm," was: "We have to do this, so be quiet because your comments won't help."
The older girls went frequently to their father's terrorism trial. When prosecutors called him a "terrorist," they shook their heads "no."
"I have never had anything to do with the PIJ or any violence, anywhere," Hammoudeh said.
The jury agreed.
When the federal judge read the jury's acquittal of Hammoudeh, after reading eight acquittal and nine mistrial verdicts for Al-Arian, Stephen Bernstein, Hammoudeh's attorney, sobbed.
"I was so relieved because I believe so much in Sameeh's innocence and goodness," he said.
If the Hammoudehs go to Jordan this week as planned, they will be at the center of a huge family celebration. There will be roast lamb with yogurt and vintage family tales - an attempt to forget the past three years.
They hope to sell their Tampa house and furnishings so that Hammoudeh can start a bookstore in the West Bank. Weeam, 19, who has already graduated from Florida International University, hopes to go to graduate school near Ramallah. Doaa will work on her Arabic so she can go to college.
"How sad to have to leave our home in the United States in order to be a family with a future," Hammoudeh said.