Ex-prof's terrorism trial set to begin (5/15)May. 15, 2005
The terrorism trial of a former University of South Florida professor, which starts Monday, touches on issues critical to the nation.
By Martin Merzer AND Phil Long
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After 814 days in prison, many of them spent in solitary confinement, former professor Sami Al-Arian goes on trial this week, charged with commanding a terrorist cell that flourished in Tampa and infiltrated the University of South Florida...
The indictment, issued with considerable drama in February 2003 as the nation prepared for war in Iraq and searched for the masterminds of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, also charges the defendants with racketeering, conspiracy and extortion.
Inherently complex -- the 159-page indictment includes 53 counts and the docket already contains 1,032 documents -- the case touches on many issues now confronting Americans:
The real but often camouflaged threat of terrorism. Inflammatory political campaigns in Florida. The fairness and competence of the media. The proper balance between prosecutorial vigilance and extremism.
''The tension is that we want the government to be aggressive and to root out terrorists,'' said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. ``But, of course, we are always concerned, and I think rightly so, that the government may overstep its bounds.''
...Al-Arian's attorneys say he is being punished for his pro- Palestinian views and is a victim of anti-Muslim bias and post-Sept. 11 hysteria. They say his activities, which appear nefarious when extracted in the indictment, were designed to raise money for Palestinian charities.
During a 1998 interview with The Herald, while under investigation, Al-Arian said:
``What is it that we have done that has made these people decide they will get us through any means? What is it? Because we have strong advocacy for the Palestinian people, that's why they want to get us? What have we done? Everything was in the open. We didn't do anything in secret.''
...Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday in Tampa's federal courthouse, but the proceedings might be abbreviated. Defense attorneys maintain that the trial should be moved because the jury pool was hopelessly tainted by hyperaggressive media coverage and by political opportunists during last year's U.S. Senate campaign in Florida.
''We took a magnifying glass, put it between the sun and the issue and just burned everybody's retinas with this thing,'' Jewett said. ``It was really something.''
JUROR BIAS FOUND
Some evidence exists to support that -- 155 of the first 328 questionnaires returned by prospective jurors showed such abundant bias that the respondents were swiftly disqualified.
Three other defendants will stand trial with Al-Arian -- Sameeh Hammoudeh, 44, a former USF instructor and student; Ghassan Zayed Ballut, 43, of Tinley Park, Ill.; and Hatem Naji Fariz, 32, of Spring Hill, Fla. Other defendants are at large overseas or otherwise unavailable for trial.
None of the defendants is accused of having links to al Qaeda or of fomenting violence in the United States. In fact, they are not accused of committing violence anywhere.
''I said it before, I'll say it again,'' lead prosecutor Walter E. Furr III told the court in March 2003. ``There's no allegation that any of these defendants personally participated in the commission of violent crimes. We just don't have that.''
Instead, prosecutors believe that defendants worked behind the scenes, raising and distributing money that funded Palestinian Islamic Jihad suicide bombings and other terrorist acts in Israel and the territories. In some cases, the government says, this money was paid to the families of suicide bombers and jailed terrorists.
Al-Arian consistently has declared his innocence, saying he avidly supports Palestinian independence and claiming a deep-seated aversion to violence against civilians in Israel or elsewhere.
''It is wrong,'' he told The Herald in 1998. ``Anything that has to do with civilian casualties, it is just morally wrong, religiously wrong as well as politically wrong. How can you get people with you when you're doing that?''
...And the indictment describes hundreds of intercepted phone calls, faxes and other encounters that involved the defendants. The government hopes those will be seen as nurturing a conspiracy that took advantage of the freedoms of expression and travel available in the United States.
Inconveniently for the prosecution, many of those incidents occurred before January 1995, when the U.S. government branded Palestinian Islamic Jihad as a terrorist group and barred financial transactions with it.
When the original indictment was announced on Feb. 20, 2003, and Al- Arian was jailed without bond, officials trumpeted their actions.
''We will hunt down the suppliers of terrorist money, we will shut down their sources and we will ensure that both terrorists and their financiers meet the same swift, certain justice of the United States of America,'' said then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Al-Arian was described in that indictment as ``the leader of the [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] in the United States.''
Last September, the government quietly filed a superseding indictment.
Among the changes: No longer was Al-Arian described as the group's U.S. leader.
Al-Arian, who was born in Kuwait of Palestinian parents, arrived in the United States in 1975 and worked as an engineering professor at USF, where few if any students complained about his political views. His brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, made headlines when he was held on secret evidence for three years and deported in 2002.
CHOOSING A JURY
The first challenge for all involved, especially U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr., will be jury selection.
The defense says the trial must be moved because potential jurors have been exposed to aggressive and intemperate local media coverage, especially by The Tampa Tribune, which has published hundreds of stories about Al-Arian, some of them cast in lurid terms.
Defense attorneys also cite the U.S. Senate campaign.
First, U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch took on former USF President Betty Castor in the Democratic primary, loudly accusing her of knowingly harboring terrorists on her campus. It didn't work.
Then, Republican candidate Mel Martinez adopted an even more strident approach to the same issue, saturating the airwaves with so many Al-Arian ads that the average TV viewer in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Orlando saw them 40 times, according to the Martinez campaign. Martinez defeated Castor.
''I haven't seen a criminal case that was a focus of a campaign and became such a visible political issue,'' said Lance deHaven-Smith, a political science professor at Florida State University.
Judge Moody has deferred a decision but has signaled that he is considering a change of venue.
One possible trial site: Arlington, Va.