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Al-Arian associate sentenced

Co-defendant Hatem Fariz received 37 months in prison for offering non-violent aid to a terrorist group.

By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published July 25, 2006


After a decade-long investigation followed by a six-month trial, the terrorism case against Sami Al-Arian and three other defendants has finally ended.

Hatem Fariz pleaded guilty in federal court on Tuesday morning to providing nonviolent services to associates of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization. He was the only of the four defendants whose case was still unresolved.

U.S. District Court Judge James S. Moody sentenced Fariz to 37 months, the low end of the sentencing guideline range of 37 to 46 months.“It’s not great. But it could be a lot worse,” Fariz, 33, told the St. Petersburg Times.

“Guess I’ll lose weight and get some exercise in prison.”

He will serve his sentence 65 miles north of Tampa, at the Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, where Sami Al-Arian is serving a 57-month sentence for also providing nonviolent services to associate of PIJ, which has claimed responsibility for hundreds of deaths in Israel and the occupied territories.

Before sentencing, Fariz’s attorney Allison Guagliardo asked the judge to consider her client’s lesser role compared to that of Al-Arian, who participated in PIJ political decisions in the mid 1990s. She urged Moody to consider that Fariz was “very involved with his family and has three very young children.”

Guagliardo also asked Moody to let her respond if he “relied on facts outside the case” to explain a longer sentence. The request was a veiled reference to Moody’s stinging rebuke of Al-Arian at his May sentencing, when Moody chastised Al-Arian for publicly praising the United States while privately calling it “the great Satan.”

But none of the lawyers could remember any evidence that showed Al-Arian using the words “great Satan.”

Guagliardo’s fears were heightened after Moody originally rejected a plea deal agreed to by the prosecution and defense, which would have sentenced Fariz to 36 months in prison. Moody had said the sentence -- a month less than the low range of the sentencing guidelines -- was not long enough. Guagliardo worried that Moody might give Fariz the maximum allowed, as he had done with Al-Arian.

But when Moody sentenced Fariz on Tuesday, he only added one month to what was in the original deal. He also told Fariz he could turn himself in at the appropriate time, which will be in the next few weeks.

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Fariz was raised in a Chicago suburb, where he was captain of his high school soccer team. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in computer science.

Growing up, he spent several months every few years in the occupied territories of Israel on his grandparents’ farm, where he picked herbs, fruits and vegetables.

“This connection to the land of my ancestors means so much to me,” he said during a June interview. “But I have always been an American.”

In 2002, he moved to the Tampa area, where he ran a medical clinic and frequently volunteered at his children’s school. He parked cars at school events, flipped burgers at school barbecues and collected tickets at the carnivals. His former attorney Kevin Beck described him as “the go-to person for community grunt work.”

“Unfortunately, it’s wanting to help out that got me in trouble,” Fariz told the St. Petersburg Times in June.

It has been 12 years since FBI agents began gathering intelligence information for this case by taping Sami Al-Arian’s phone calls. In that time, they recorded thousands of hours of conversations, searched his home and offices twice, gathering a warehouse full of documents.

But it was not until 2003, after the passage of the Patriot Act, that federal prosecutors flipped this information into criminal evidence and arrested Al-Arian, Fariz, Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Ballut, charging the four with raising money for PIJ activities. Five other defendants were named in the indictments, but they remained at large overseas and were not arrested.

FBI agents began taping Fariz’s phone conversations in 2001 and continued until his arrest in 2003. They also recorded previous phone conversations when Fariz talked to Al-Arian and Ramadan Shallah, who became PIJ leader in 1995.

Tuesday, Fariz accepted guilt for three activities discussed in taped phone conversations: He arranged a magazine interview in 2000 with PIJ associate Abd Al Aziz Awda, when Awda lived in the occupied territories. In 1995, he sent tapes to Shallah in Tampa, seven months before Shallah became PIJ leader in Syria.

And, in 2001 and 2002, Fariz raised money for book bags and an ambulance for needy Palestinians in the occupied territories, arranging for their distribution through Elehssan, a charitable organization in Gaza which received financial support from the PIJ.

After a six-month trial, which ended in December, 2005, a jury returned not-guilty verdicts for Fariz, Al-Arian and the other two defendants. Hammoudeh and Ballut were acquitted of all counts. But jurors could not agree on nine of 17 counts against Al-Arian and eight of 33 counts against Fariz.

In the following months, defense attorneys and federal prosecutors negotiated plea deals for Al-Arian and Fariz.
In early June, during negotiations, Fariz told the St. Petersburg Times: “I’m tired. My family is tired. But I really did nothing criminal; so, it’s hard for me to plead guilty to a crime in this case.”

But Tuesday Fariz did plead guilty.

A month before, he also pleaded guilty to food stamp fraud in a separate Illinois case. In that case, he accepted responsibility for owning a convenience store where employees converted customers’ food stamps to cash, skimming a percentage off the top.

For that crime, Fariz faces up to three years and five months in prison, but has not been sentenced. His wife, Manal Ramadan, said they are hoping the Chicago sentence runs concurrent with the Tampa sentence.

“You are never prepared for a prison sentence,” she said. “But we are determined to get all of this over with.”

At the close of Fariz’s sentencing in Tampa federal court Tuesday, marking the end of the Al-Arian case, federal prosecutor Terry Zitek said the outcome showed the world that “the United States will not tolerate foreign terrorism operations.”

“While Fariz had a minor role in this offense,” Zitek said, “his sentence offers some measure of protection for the public.”

Meg Laughlin can be reached mlaughlin@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 25, 2006, 21:53:25]


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