tampabay.com

Judge sentences Al-Arian to limit

He calls the former USF professor a "master manipulator" responsible for deaths. Al-Arian will spend about 18 months in jail before he's deported.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published May 2, 2006


TAMPA - U.S. District Judge James Moody imposed the maximum sentence on Sami Al-Arian Monday, calling the former university professor a "master manipulator'' who led a double life in the top ranks of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Moody shocked the courtroom when he ignored the recommendation of prosecutors and defense attorneys for a lower sentence. He gave Al-Arian as much prison time as possible under a plea deal - 57 months, followed by deportation.

With credit for time served while awaiting trial, Al-Arian will spend about 18 months behind bars, unless he receives time off for good behavior.

Moody seemed to accept one aspect of the government's case that the jury rejected: that Al-Arian's role in Palestinian Islamic Jihad left him with blood on his hands.

"Your only connection to orphans and widows is that you create them," Moody said.

The sentencing began with Al-Arian's attorney Linda Moreno telling Moody of "the painful price" Al-Arian paid during 38 months behind bars, most of it in isolation.

Then Al-Arian admitted offering services to associates of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and spoke briefly of his "belief in the true meaning of a democratic society ... and the integrity of the jury system.''

Then Moody delivered the blow: "Dr Al-Arian, as usual, you speak eloquently,'' Moody said . "I find it interesting that here in public in front of everyone you praised this country ... but that's just evidence of how you operate. ... You are a master manipulator.''

Moody said Al-Arian lied about his leadership role with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and criticized him for calling the work "charity for widows and orphans."

"This trial exposed that as a lie. ... The evidence was clear in this case that you were a leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. You were on the board of directors and an officer, the secretary,'' Moody said.

In early December after a six-month trial, a jury acquitted Al-Arian of eight charges - including "conspiracy to murder and maim persons abroad.'' The jury deadlocked on nine charges. Three months later, prosecutors dropped all but one charge, and Al-Arian pleaded guilty to helping PIJ members with immigration and legal matters.

But the judge made it clear Monday that he saw Al-Arian's role differently.

Echoing a paid government informant who testified at the trial, Moody told Al-Arian: "Your children attend the finest universities this country has to offer while you raise money to blow up the children of others.''

As the judge spoke, Al-Arian's three children, all graduate students, stared at the judge, while their mother, Al-Arian's wife, Nahla, walked out of the courtroom.

"Thank God the judge wasn't on the jury,'' said Laila Al-Arian, as U.S. marshals led her father out of the courtroom.

With the 57-month sentence, the controversial 12-year case against Sami Al-Arian and three co-defendants finally ends. One other defendant still faces the possibility of a retrial on counts the jury couldn't resolve. And two others have been acquitted on all counts.

After the hearing, Tampa U.S. Attorney for the Middle District Paul I. Perez called the sentence and Moody's words "vindication for the criminal investigation.''

Perez said Al-Arian was guilty of "a terrorism-related crime to provide goods and services to a deadly terrorist organization.''

When a reporter asked if Al-Arian was "a terrorist," Perez responded: "He's a member of the PIJ.''

There was no evidence presented at the trial that Al-Arian's role with the PIJ leadership continued beyond 1995, when the group was designated a "specially designated terrorist group" by the U.S. government.

He pleaded guilty to helping two PIJ associates with immigration and legal problems, and to covering up the connection to PIJ of a third. He also acknowledged being associated with PIJ in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Georgetown University law professor David Cole said he was perplexed by the sentence and what Moody said.

"The judge's words - that Al-Arian supported violence -- contradict the very basis of the jury's acquittal and the plea agreement, and raise questions about fundamental fairness,'' said Cole, who represented Mazen Al-Najjar, Al-Arian's brother-in-law, in a case that concluded with Al-Najjar's deportation in 2002.

Al-Arian's attorney Linda Moreno said it was Moody's time to be heard and she respected that. She said that as long as the judge stayed within the sentencing guidelines, he had the latitude to speak as strongly as he wished.

"But we respectfully disagree with him," said Moreno. "The violence the judge talked about was repudiated by the jury and there was no mention of violence in the plea agreement, which the judge approved.'' Moreno said Al-Arian was disappointed with the sentence but knew it was within the guidelines and was prepared for the possibility. "He is at peace,'' she said.

Stephen Flatow, the father of a 20-year-old American killed by the PIJ, said from his office in New Jersey that he also was "at peace'' with the sentence and the judge's words. "Moody apparently recognized Al-Arian was leading a double life with his PIJ connections, even though there was no smoking gun or direct evidence to the violence,'' said Flatow.

Those associated with the University of South Florida, where Al-Arian was a computer science professor until he was fired Feb. 26, 2003, had mixed reactions.

Dick Beard, chairman of the University of South Florida board of trustees, said he was pleased with the sentence.

"I think it brings finality to USF on this issue,'' Beard said.

Roy Weatherford, president for the USF chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, said the guilty plea and the sentence meant that the faculty, which had been "nearly unanimous'' in supporting Al-Arian's right to due process after he was fired, would drop any remaining support of his grievance.

"If things had turned out otherwise, there might yet have been a question about professor Al-Arian's rights at the university,'' he said.

Jurors also had mixed reactions. The jurors spoke on the condition that their last names not be used.

Of the nine to 10 jurors who supported acquittal for Al-Arian on the nine deadlocked charges, three contacted by the St. Petersburg Times expressed disappointment at the judge's words linking Al-Arian to violence.

"Our judicial system has changed drastically since 9/11, and it's only human to confuse fact and emotion. I can only say that the judge's words today showed us he is human,'' said juror Ron.

Juror Char, one of two who held out for conviction on the nine deadlocked counts, said she never linked Al-Arian directly to violence in her own mind. "But it bothered me that he never said stop to the violence, and I didn't think he should walk away."

"I'm thankful the judge made a decision," she said. "But it was not a decision I could've made.''

The judge concluded his words to Al-Arian by saying that "anyone with even the slightest bit of human compassion would be sickened'' by a double suicide bombing at Beit Lid, Israel, in January 1995 that killed 22 people. But, he said Al-Arian "saw it as an opportunity to solicit more money to carry out more bombings," and wrote a letter to a Kuwaiti legislator.

Evidence at the trial suggested the letter, seized by the FBI from Al-Arian's home, was never sent. But Moody told Al-Arian it showed his "true attitude."

At the time of the writing, the judge told Al-Arian, "you continue to lie to your friends and supporters, claiming to abhor violence."

He concluded: "You are indeed a master manipulator.''

When the courtroom emptied, Moody signed an expedited order of removal for Al-Arian, which means he will be deported as soon as he completes his sentence.

It is not clear where he will go.

Times staff writer Kevin Graham contributed to this report.

ON THE WEB

Read Al-Arian's full statement at links.tampabay.com.