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The Sami Al-Arian Case

Al-Arian's plea ends an ordeal

He agreed to a single count of conspiracy to end his family's turmoil, his attorney says.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published April 18, 2006


 

TAMPA - In the end, Sami Al-Arian's decision to accept a plea deal came down to two things: his desire to end the case for his family, and his determination not to admit to a crime of violence.

The single count to which he pleaded guilty in a deal approved Monday accomplished both, said his attorney Linda Moreno.

"In the agreement, he did not plead guilty to any crime of violence, and by pleading he gave his family closure in this ordeal," she said.

What the former University of South Florida computer science professor did do, however, was publicly admit for the first time that he aided associates of a terrorist group.

By pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide services to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Al-Arian acknowledged helping three known associates of the group with various nonviolent activities and repeatedly lying about what he knew.

As a result, Al-Arian likely will serve several more months in prison, then be deported to an undetermined country.

In a statement, the U.S. Justice Department, including Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, hailed the agreement as the result of years of investigative and prosecutorial effort.

"Because of the painstaking work of the prosecutors and agents who pursued this case, Al-Arian has now confessed to helping terrorists do their work from his base here in the United States - a base he is no longer able to maintain," said Paul Perez, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, whose office prosecuted the case.

Gonzalez said Al-Arian "will now lose the right to live in the country he calls home as a result of his confessed criminal conduct."

Moreno, however, characterized the deal as "a victory that is the result of the victory the jury gave us in December" at the trial of Al-Arian and three co-defendants. The jury acquitted Al-Arian, 48, of eight counts and deadlocked on nine others.

Al-Arian's plea is the first guilty count the government has achieved out of the original 53-count indictment of four defendants, which followed years of investigation and millions of dollars in costs.

David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who represented Al-Arian's brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar in his fight against incarceration on secret government evidence of terrorism, called the plea deal "a major blow to the government."

"This is someone they initially claimed was guilty of conspiring to kill and maim innocent civilians," Cole said Monday from Washington, D.C. "The government essentially dropped its case against him."

Al-Arian will probably spend no more than eight more months in prison before he is deported to a Middle Eastern country. Al-Arian, who has already spent 38 months in prison, accepted the low range of the sentencing guidelines, which was recommended by federal prosecutors in his plea deal. That range is 46 to 57 months, with 15 percent off for good conduct.

Sentencing is set for May 1, and U.S. District Judge James S. Moody has said no witnesses will speak either for or against Al-Arian. The judge is not bound by the terms of the agreement. If Al-Arian is unhappy with the judge's sentence, the deal allows him to withdraw his plea.

His wife, Nahla, and his two minor children will join him when he is deported, while the three adult children, all graduate students, will remain in the United States to finish school.

"We are very nervous because we don't yet know what country will accept us," Nahla Al-Arian said Monday.

She also said the family is "saddened" to be leaving the country they "love and have called home for most of our lives." But, she said, they are "looking forward to once again living as a family in freedom."

Neither Al-Arian's attorney, his wife nor the government could say where Al-Arian will be deported. He has lived in Egypt, and one of his daughters lives in Cairo with his wife's family.

In June 2005, at the start of the trial of Al-Arian and three codefendants - Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Ballut and Hatem Fariz - federal prosecutor Walter Furr said Al-Arian and the others perpetuated a "terrorism cycle" by announcing murders, then raising money to pay for future murders. Furr described Al-Arian as "the most powerful man in the world in this organization."

At the trial, federal prosecutors showed chilling videos and photos of burnt-out buses and charred bodies, the result of Palestinian Islamic Jihad attacks in Israel and the Occupied Territories. But when the six-month trial ended, the jury completely acquitted two defendants, acquitted a third on 25 of 33 counts, and acquitted Al-Arian on eight of 17 counts. The remaining counts ended in a jury deadlock, and prosecutors and defense attorneys began secretly negotiating a plea deal for Al-Arian.

Ultimately, Al-Arian accepted guilt for helping three associates of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad with the following activities:

Mazen Al-Najjar and Bashir Nafi with immigration issues.

Al-Najjar by fighting against his incarceration and deportation based upon secret evidence.

Ramadan Shallah by helping him conceal his connection to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad by lying about it.

In the mid 1990s, the three scholars worked for World and Islam Studies Enterprise, a Middle Eastern think tank, which Al-Arian founded. WISE was associated with USF. According to FBI wiretaps, unbeknownst to USF administrators, the three received partial salaries for their WISE work from Palestinian Islamic Jihad funds set aside for education.

In 1995, when the group's leader was killed by Israelis, Shallah became the new head five months after he left WISE. He now lives in Syria and still runs the the organization. Nafi teaches at a university outside of London, and Al-Najjar lives in Cairo.

Specifically, Al-Arian admitted to helping Nafi in 1995 by filing "a visa renewal petition with the INS" on Nafi's behalf. Al-Arian said he helped Al-Najjar by "utilizing a contact of Nafi's in Egypt to obtain travel documents for Al-Najjar" and having a "coded conversation about the account to which Nafi had sent money to assist in the defense of ... Al-Najjar."

And Al-Arian confessed in the plea agreement to helping Shallah by lying to a St. Petersburg Times reporter about his knowledge of Shallah's connections to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and "falsely stating there was nothing Shallah had done while at WISE to indicate any (PIJ) political affiliation."

But nothing in the plea agreement connects Al-Arian to the violence of the group, which has claimed responsibility for hundreds of deaths in Israel and the Occupied Territories - most recently the deaths of nine Israeli civilians killed Monday by a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv.

American Stephen Flatow, whose daughter Alisa was studying in Israel and killed in a 1995 suicide bombing by the group, said Monday that federal prosecutors had not talked to him about the plea deal. As a government witness, Flatow came from New Jersey to testify at the trial about his daughter's death.

He said he would ask the judge if he could speak again at the sentencing, but doubted it would be allowed because "of the nature of the plea deal," which Flatow called "an in-between agreement that may be the best we can get."

Family members of 16-year-old Shoshana Ben-Ishai, another American bombing victim listed in the original indictment against Al-Arian, said the government did not contact them either about the plea agreement. However, Shoshana's mother, Miriam, said by phone from Jerusalem on Monday that the deal "is better than nothing."

"I feel happy they are doing that," she said of Al-Arian's pending deportation, "because I feel that he was involved in crime and he shouldn't be a citizen of the United States."

Al-Arian's son Abdullah, 25, said he remembered a birthday card his father sent him from prison two years ago, before his trial. His father wrote that he should "have faith in the process and contribute what I can to society," said Abdullah.

Once Al-Arian is sentenced, prosecutors can turn to the remaining defendant, Hatem Fariz, who could be retried on eight counts.

"Hatem has been on ice, waiting for the government to finish with Al-Arian," said his attorney Kevin Beck. "We're hoping to negotiate a deal with a fraction of the sentence Al-Arian got."

--Times staff writers Brady Dennis and Susan Taylor Martin contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 18, 2006, 14:19:32]


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