The most telling moment of the Al-Arian trial came when his lawyers opted to put on no defense. They simply declined to answer what they said was insufficient evidence presented by the government to prove their client’s guilt. Apparently, the jury agreed.
Once billed as a major strike in the war on terrorism, the case against Sami Al-Arian crumbled Tuesday when jurors rejected federal charges that Al-Arian and three co-defendants operated a North American cell for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Tears of joy at the defense table met with blank expressions of shock among prosecutors after jurors deadlocked on nine counts against Al-Arian and found him not guilty of conspiring to commit murder abroad, money laundering and obstruction of justice.
Defendants Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Ballut were acquitted on all counts. Hatim Fariz was acquitted on the counts on which jurors could reach a verdict.
“This ranks as one of the most significant defeats for the U.S. government, for the Justice Department since 9/11,” said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University Law School who has represented other terrorism defendants.
“The Justice Department spent copious amounts of money and time to make the case against Al-Arian.”
One juror, who gave only her first name, said prosecutors failed to connect the dots on the conspiracies charged. Jurors were left to assume the defendants were aiding the Islamic Jihad even when the evidence didn’t prove it, said Thanh, a 38-year-old department store sales associate from Lakeland.
U.S. Attorney Paul Perez first had no comment when asked what effect the verdicts would have on the country’s war against terrorism. But then he said, “I don’t think there’s any connection between the two things.”
That’s at odds with statements he and Ashcroft made in announcing the indictment.
Then, Perez called the defendants “major terrorist financial supporters who took advantage of the freedoms of an open society to help foster anti-Western violence.”
“We have an extensive record in breaking up terrorist financing,” Ashcroft said. “Our record on terrorist financing is clear: We will hunt down the suppliers of terrorist blood money, we will shut down these sources, and we will ensure that both terrorists and their financiers meet the same swift, certain justice of the United States of America.”"
Al-Arian has been defending himself against these charges for years. First, the Tampa Tribune attacked him in print. Then, he was arrested and held in solitary while Bill O’Reilly churned up enough outrage to have him fired from his professorship at USF. Finally, he was charged, with John Ashcroft announcing the indictments with great fanfare and much talk about the Bush regime’s winning strategy against terror.
In the end, not a single guilty verdict was returned after a six-month trial that included more than 80 witnesses and 400 transcripts of intercepted phone conversations and faxes.
The verdicts were a major defeat for the federal government, which characterized Al-Arian’s indictment as a major case against terrorism, and a victory for Al-Arian’s attorneys, who considered the government’s case so weak they they declined to put on a defense.
But officials with the U.S. Justice Department, which investigated Al-Arian for years before filing charges, are still deciding whether to retry Al-Arian and co-defendant Hatem Fariz on charges for which the jury deadlocked.
One remaining charge against Al-Arian and Fariz, a racketeering conspiracy charge, carries a potential life sentence. Al-Arian was returned to the Hillsborough jail after the verdict. His attorneys could try to get him out on bail but said it was likely immigration officials would immediately pick him up for detention. “The Justice Department has a strong track record of success in prosecuting terrorists and those who support terrorist activities. We remain focused on the important task at hand, which is to protect our country through our ongoing vigorous prosecution of terrorism cases,” said Tasia Scolinos, director of public affairs for the U.S. Justice Department.
A spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said Tuesday the agency would work with the Department of Homeland Security to deport Al-Arian, who is not a U.S. citizen, at the conclusion of legal proceedings.
Al-Arian attorney William Moffitt called that move “totally vindictive” since Al-Arian has not been convicted of any crimes.
Al-Arian went from computer science professor to controversial international figure in the decade after a television documentary and articles in the Tampa Tribune raised questions about terrorist ties to a think tank he ran at USF.
FBI agents tapped his phones for nine years. They twice raided his home and offices, taking dozens of boxes of personal belongings. He was arrested in February 2003 and fired by USF in that same month. He spent the past three years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement, charged with 17 counts of terrorism-related activities. His trial began June 6, 2005. It ended Tuesday, exactly six months later.
As it turned out, the great majority of jurors wanted to acquit Al-Arian and the three co-defendants on all charges. But, they say, two to three others held out for conviction, which resulted in a hung jury on a combined 17 counts for Fariz and Al-Arian.
“Usually, there were 10 of us for acquittal on the charges, sometimes nine of us,” said Ron, a juror from Pasco County who did not want his last name used. Because of the nature of the terrorism case, the government kept jurors’ identities sealed from the public.
“Of course, we hate terrorism,” said Ron. “But the evidence making these guys terrorists just wasn’t there.”
Beyond the question of whether Al-Arian and those associated with him violated federal law, the trial did shed some light on unresolved questions about Al-Arian.
Wiretap conversations clearly show that, during the time he was presenting himself as an independent advocate of Palestinian rights, he was, in fact, deeply involved with PIJ, proposing changes in their leadership structure, overall strategy and financial management. Those discussions did not include talk of violent acts.
Moreover, evidence showed that top employees of WISE, including Al-Arian’s brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, were receiving payments from PIJ while they were working in Tampa for the think tank and the university.
After five months of prosecution evidence, Al-Arian’s defense attorneys caused a stir Oct. 27 when they rested without putting on a defense.
“Because there is a document called the U.S. Constitution – unless we’re about to repeal it – it protects Dr. Al-Arian’s right to speak, and the government has not proven that Dr. Al-Arian has done anything but speak. . . . The fact that Dr. Al-Arian is a Palestinian deprives him of no civil rights,” said Moffitt, explaining the decision.
Now, having been acquitted, he’ll be rapidly deported. USF wont consider reinstating him, and Bush’s justice department will probably just slink away from a second and possibly even more humiliating trial.