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The Sami Al-Arian Case

Plea may let U.S. deport Al-Arian

The secret deal would have the former USF professor admit guilt on a conspiracy charge.

Published April 15, 2006

TAMPA - From his jail cell Friday, Sami Al-Arian secretly signed a plea deal that says he will be deported after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to help members of a terrorist organization.

Pending approval by a federal judge, the deal would effectively end one of the most high-profile terrorism cases since Sept. 11, 2001.

But where the former University of South Florida professor would be sent was not clear.

Al-Arian was acquitted in December on 8 of 17 charges alleging he raised money that went to terrorist organizations.

Jurors could not agree on the remaining nine charges, and prosecutors and defense attorneys have been negotiating since.

Under the deal, Al-Arian would plead guilty to a watered-down version of Count No. 4, which accused him of providing goods and services to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a "specially designated terrorist group" in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

The crux of the agreement, according to lawyers familiar with the case, is that Al-Arian helped a PIJ associate, his brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar.

Al-Najjar, originally arrested in 1997, spent 3 1/2 years in a Bradenton detention facility on "secret evidence." He was arrested again in November 2001 for a visa violation and was deported the next year.

Al-Arian has been in jail since his arrest in 2003.

In rewriting Count No. 4 for the plea agreement, federal prosecutors concede that Al-Arian did not commit a crime of violence, and that there are "no victims direct or indirect" to his crime.

At his trial, he and three co-defendants were accused of raising money to further the violent acts of the PIJ, which has claimed responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of people in Israel and the occupied territories.

But the majority of jurors said no evidence linked the defendants to this criminal activity.

Federal prosecutors in Tampa could not be reached for comment. The agreement will have to be approved by U.S. District Judge James S. Moody.

The judge, who presided over the six-month trial of Al-Arian and three co-defendants, probably will schedule a hearing to sentence Al-Arian in the next few weeks.

Al-Arian's wife, Nahla, said she and her husband are "distraught" that "news of the very secret negotiations" were divulged to an Associated Press reporter in Washington, who wrote Friday that Al-Arian had agreed to be deported.

While the AP did not report details of the deal, Mrs. Al-Arian said she and her husband "fear the news at this sensitive time cannot help us."

"This leak must have come from the Department of Justice in Washington because we and everyone we know have respected the order to keep quiet," said Nahla.

"One always wonders what Justice is up to," Al-Arian's former attorney Bill Moffitt told the St. Petersburg Times from a hospital bed in Washington D.C., where he is recuperating from knee-cap replacements.

Linda Moreno, Al-Arian's Tampa attorney, was contacted by AP but declined to comment.

During the trial, prosecutors relied heavily on FBI wiretaps of telephone conversations involving Al-Arian and three co-defendants over nine years.

Evidence from these conversations indicated that Al-Arian frequently spoke to PIJ associates in 1994, before the PIJ was designated as a terrorist group.

This wiretap evidence also showed that three colleagues of Al-Arian - Al-Najjar, Bashir Nafi and Ramadan Shallah - who worked at a think tank Al-Arian founded, received part of their salary from the PIJ.

The think tank, World and Islam Studies Enterprise, was affiliated with USF, where Al-Arian was a computer science professor.

USF administrators who testified at the trial said that they were unaware of any connection between the think tank and PIJ but that information disseminated by the think tank was "balanced."

In the spring of 1995, Shallah quit as chief administrator of WISE and traveled to the Middle East. That October, Fathi Shikaki, the head of PIJ, was assassinated. Shortly thereafter, Shallah emerged as the new PIJ leader.

Shallah, Al-Najjar and Nafi were listed as co-conspirators in the indictment against Al-Arian, even though they were not in custody.

Four defendants faced the jurors.

Two of Al-Arian's co-defendants, Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Ballut, were acquitted.

Hammoudeh, who is not a U.S. citizen, is in immigration custody, awaiting deportation. Ballut, who is a citizen, has returned to his home in a Chicago suburb, where he owns a dry-cleaning business.

Defendant Hatem Fariz, also a U.S. citizen, could be retried on eight counts for which the jurors could not reach a verdict. He was acquitted on 25 counts. It is not clear what effect Al-Arian's plea deal will have on Fariz's possible retrial.

Moffitt would not talk about the plea deal. "We hope," he said, "it will be over soon and Sami can go home."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified April 15, 2006, 00:53:01]

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