In his plea deal, what did Sami Al-Arian admit to?
Buried within legalese: an admission that he continued to aid relatives and colleagues associated with PIJ after it was designated a terrorist group.
By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published April 23, 2006
TAMPA - As the news of Sami Al-Arian's plea agreement broke last week, Tampa freelance writer Jim Harper was surprised to see he was part of it.
"I have to say," said Harper, "that it's the first time in my life that someone has faced a federal prison sentence for lying to me."
The plea agreement told how Harper, as a St. Petersburg Times reporter covering Al-Arian in the mid 1990s, called Al-Arian in late October 1995, when Al-Arian's former think tank colleague, Ramadan Shallah, suddenly emerged as the head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group in Israel and the occupied territories.
At the time, the news stunned people - especially those in the Tampa area - and made the already-controversial Al-Arian even more controversial.
Al-Arian had recently been described in a TV documentary and reports in the Tampa Tribune as a PIJ leader. Al-Arian had repeatedly denied any connection to the PIJ.
When Shallah, the former director of World and Islam Studies Enterprise, a USF-associated think tank founded by Al-Arian, emerged as the leader of the PIJ - six months after leaving Tampa - questions arose about how much Al-Arian had actually known. Harper called Al-Arian to ask if he knew Shallah was the new PIJ leader, and had he known Shallah's PIJ connections when he worked at WISE.
Al-Arian's first response: "It can't be the same person."
But it was the same person.
He later said: "He didn't do anything to make me think he was any party to anything happening."
In both interviews with Harper, based upon trial evidence from FBI wiretaps, Al-Arian lied.
Eleven years later, these responses figure in Al-Arian's plea agreement, which was approved by a federal judge Monday.
"It seems to me the right outcome," said Harper. "What Al-Arian did is not nearly as serious as what the government made it out to be. . . . But it does show the core of it - that Al-Arian shielded other people illegally and wasn't truthful about it."
The plea agreement hinges upon an order issued by the Clinton administration in January 1995.
That executive order declared the PIJ a "specially designated terrorist" organization. It barred "making or receiving contributions, funds, goods or services" to benefit the PIJ, and outlawed actions designed to evade the ban.
In the plea agreement, Al-Arian admits conspiring to help people associated with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and covering up his knowledge of the PIJ associations by lying to Harper and others. He also admits that he had been associated with PIJ during "the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s."
For this guilty plea, Al-Arian, who has already spent three years in prison before and during his trial, will be deported, after possibly serving a prison sentence of several more months, to be determined by a federal judge May 1.
This comes after 12 years of work on the part of the FBI, more than three years of work on the part of federal prosecutors and defense attorneys, and a six-month trial, in which federal prosecutors accused Al-Arian and three other men of conspiring to further the violent acts of the PIJ.
The trial ended in December with no guilty verdicts. He was acquitted on nine counts and the jury hung on eight others.
Like practically everything else to do with Al-Arian, the plea agreement is the subject of much controversy. Letters and phone calls from readers coming into the St. Petersburg Times reflect disparate views on Al-Arian, ranging from great sympathy for him as "a brave and persecuted Palestinian activist" to the desire to see him "rot in jail."
Jurors from Al-Arian's trial also had mixed reactions: Several of the nine to 10 jurors who voted for acquittal on all counts expressed disappointment that he pleaded guilty to any count.
"They have so little on him that I'm disappointed. Most of us think he gave in because he was so sick of being in jail," said juror Ron, who voted for acquittal.
But one of the few jurors who wanted to find him guilty on several of the counts expressed vindication.
Juror Char - who held out for conviction on nine counts, causing a mistrial - saw it differently: "Like another person on the jury, I was convinced Mr. Al-Arian was still working with the PIJ after it was illegal. He was a very smart man and knew how not to be obvious. For me, the absence of evidence didn't mean there was no evidence. For me, it suggested a coverup, which he admitted to, in the plea agreement," she said.
The jurors are only being identified by their first names at their request, citing security reasons. Their names have never been made public by the court.
In the plea deal, Al-Arian pleads guilty to the count with the smallest sentence - between 46 to 57 months. Denied bail after his arrest, he has already spent 38 months in prison and prosecutors have recommended the low end of the sentence.
The document cites specific acts that support his admission of guilt.
Al-Arian pleaded guilty to knowing that his brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar and two other colleagues, Bashir Nafi and Ramadan Shallah, were associated with the PIJ leadership and covering this up. He also admitted helping Nafi and Al-Najjar, after 1995, when it became illegal to do so because, according to evidence, they kept communicating with PIJ leaders.
And he says in the agreement that he knew of the group's violent acts.
There was never any evidence in the trial to show that Al-Arian or his co-defendants were involved with any violent acts.
At the trial, federal prosecutors presented dozens upon dozens of transcripts of phone conversations and fax exchanges that Al-Arian had with PIJ leaders before such communications became illegal in 1995. According to this evidence, Al-Arian spoke and wrote in support of PIJ attacks, and also was concerned with how the PIJ would use money to get the Palestinian side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out. He wanted a chunk of the money to come to Tampa to keep his think tank World and Islam Studies Enterprise afloat.
When Shallah left Tampa in early 1995 and became head of the PIJ six months later, this made WISE the focus of intense scrutiny.
Several USF administrators testified at the trial, calling WISE "academically worthwhile" and an organization that "stimulated debate and never favored or encouraged any kind of terrorism."
Evidence in the trial indicated that three people working at WISE - Al-Najjar, Shallah and Nafi - received regular checks from PIJ.
WISE was closed down after Shallah left and became the head of the PIJ. Prosecutors called it "cover for a PIJ terrorist cell in Tampa," Ultimately, the government dropped this claim in the plea agreement.
What Al-Arian did, according to his plea agreement:
On August 25, 1995, he filed immigration papers to help Nafi stay in the United States. Several months later, Al-Najjar also sent an affidavit in support of Nafi. Al-Najjar wrote that he and Al-Arian had the money to pay Nafi's salary. These acts on Nafi's behalf are considered part of a conspiracy because at the time, FBI wiretaps show Nafi was communicating with the leader of the PIJ.
In 2005, the U.S. government tried to extradite Nafi to stand trial with Al-Arian, but the British government refused. Nafi is currently a university professor in England.
Part of Al-Arian's plea agreement also involves statements and actions to help Al-Najjar in 2000.
Al-Najjar, who was deported in 2002, had been in and out of jail for four years. He was initially arrested for visa violations, and kept in jail because the government told the immigration court it had secret evidence that he was associated with the PIJ.
Al-Arian admitted helping Al-Najjar get travel documents for his deportation, and using "coded language" in telephone conversations while trying to raise money for the case.
Al-Arian also admitted trying to get one or more newspapers articles written about a former top PIJ leader, Abd Al Aziz Awda. Wiretaps showed that Al-Najjar had been communicating with Awda.
Awda had since returned to the occupied territories with the permission of Israel. According to the plea agreement, Al-Arian wanted the article to "portray Awda as a religious leader with no relation to the PIJ."
With sentencing set for May 1, the long and controversial battle over Sami Al-Arian may finally come to an end. Al-Arian's attorneys are working on getting travel documents so he can quickly be deported, after he serves a brief sentence. At his departure, some will weep; some will cheer, as is always the case with anything to do with Al-Arian.
Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.