CAIR WELCOMES RELEASE OF DR. SAMI AL-ARIAN
(WASHINGTON D.C., 9/2/08) The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) today welcomed the release of Dr. Sami Al-Arian, a former Florida professor who has been in federal custody for more than five years. A judge ordered him freed on bail to await trial for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury.
(SEE: Sami Al-Arian Freed on Bail in Virginia)
“We welcome Dr. Al-Arian’s release and hope that it is an indication that justice may ultimately be served in this disturbing case,” said CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad. “After so many years of anguish, the Al-Arian children will finally be able to spend Ramadan with their father.”
In 2005, a Florida jury rejected federal charges that Al-Arian operated a cell for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Al-Arian later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was scheduled for release and deportation.
SEE: No Guilty Verdicts in Al-Arian Trial (Tampa Tribune)
SEE ALSO: Life Once in Shambles, Former USF Instructor Al-Najjar Builds New One (St. Petersburg Times)
A documentary film, “USA vs. Al-Arian,” offers a family portrait that documents the Al-Arian family’s desperate attempt to fight terrorism charges leveled by the U.S. government.
CAIR, America’s largest Islamic civil liberties group, has 35 offices and chapters nationwide and in Canada. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.
monitoring device: Sami Al-Arian freed on bail in Virginia
Sami Al-Arian is out on bail in Virginia today, said his attorney Jonathan Turley.
“He is having a very cheerful reunion with four of his children in Washington, D.C.,” said Turley.
His wife, Nahla, and youngest daughter, Lama, returned to Egypt three days ago.
The former University of South Florida professor had been in federal custody for more than five years and was released this afternoon by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement . Al-Arian had been held by ICE for 130 days and the legal limit is 90 days.
In July, federal judge Leonie Brinkema ordered him freed on bail to await trial for a criminal contempt charge for refusing to testify before a a federal grand jury. Al-Arian had completed a 57-month sentence a year ago for helping associates of a Palestinian terrorist organization with nonviolent activities.
But he was never freed from federal custody. Instead, he was held in prison on a civil contempt charge by federal prosecutors in Virginia and then by immigration after his sentence ended. Then, he was charged with criminal contempt.
He is now at the apartment of his oldest daughter Laila, with four of his five children.
“We are delighted and relieved that Dr. Al-Arian is reunited with his family. He looks forward to addressing the remaining charges in court and securing his permanent release,” said Turley.
— Meg Laughlin, Times staff writer- Posted by Times Editor at 4:51:24 PM on September 2, 2008 in Hillsborough | Permalink
No Guilty Verdicts In Al-Arian Trial
By MICHAEL FECHTER, ELAINE SILVESTRINI and LENNY SAVINO The Tampa Tribune
Published: Dec 6, 2005
TAMPA – 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.
“I think the jury were open-minded people – able to see through what the government was saying,” said Ali Al-Arian, son of the former University of South Florida professor and a high school sophomore. Speaking outside the courthouse, he said, “There was no evidence at all.”
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.
The jury’s decision, on the 13th day of deliberations and six months to the day after the trial started, marks a stunning defeat for federal prosecutors.
Islamic Jihad is responsible for more than 100 deaths in attacks in Israel. In February 2003, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the indictment, hailing it as a milestone in the war against terrorism.
That created an expectation that came crashing down in Tampa federal court.
“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.”
Prosecutors relied on hundreds of intercepted telephone calls and faxes to try to demonstrate that the defendants were providing money for the Islamic Jihad.
Financial records showed money flowing in and out of accounts, with some going to a charity run by the terrorist group. Other money went to charity, but prosecutors questioned why legitimate donations intended to help orphans and other needy people couldn’t be sent directly.
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.
She believed prosecutors’ claims that Al-Arian served on the Islamic Jihad’s governing board but said that did not justify a conviction.
She offered money-laundering counts as an example: “They showed money moving to different accounts, but … they didn’t show it went to any terrorist organization,” she said. “If money went to Egypt, that was it. We didn’t know where it went from there.”
When prosecutors were able to track money to a destination, she said, jurors agreed it went to charity.
War Against Terrorism
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.”
The Justice Department issued a statement late Tuesday saying it remained focused on prosecuting terrorism cases.
“While we respect the jury’s verdict, we stand by the evidence we presented in court against Sami Al-Arian and his co-defendants,” said the statement from spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos. “Discussions are ongoing as to whether the government will seek to retry defendants Al-Arian and Hatim Fariz on the outstanding charges.”
Perez flew to Washington after the verdicts were reached and said his office and Justice Department officials would decide soon whether to seek a retrial on the counts on which the jury deadlocked. He said officials also will consider whether to proceed with extradition requests for any of five other defendants who were indicted in the case but are now overseas.
“As federal prosecutors, our job is to see that justice is done,” Perez said. “We don’t keep score on winners or losers. … This case was a case that needed to be brought.”
If prosecutors don’t seek a new trial, immigration officials at the Department of Homeland Security are expected to try to hold Al-Arian while they try to strip him of permanent residency and deport him.
Hammoudeh is leaving the country voluntarily by the end of the month, his attorney said after the verdict. Hammoudeh and his wife pleaded guilty to unrelated fraud charges this year. He will return to the West Bank, where his family is from.
Hammoudeh flashed him a thumbs-up and a smile after Al-Arian’s verdicts were read, then pumped his fist and smiled at his wife and daughter after hearing he had been acquitted on the 10 counts against him.
Tears flowed among relatives huddled in the back row of the courtroom gallery. Al-Arian wept, too, removing his eyeglasses and hugging attorney Linda Moreno.
Fair Trial Debate
Defense attorneys came into the case arguing they could not get a fair trial in Tampa. Years of attention on Al-Arian, in Tampa Tribune stories dating to 1995 and in the 2004 U.S. Senate race between Mel Martinez and former USF President Betty Castor, created a community bias against the defendants, they argued.
“We believe that the jury was under tremendous pressure to convict, which makes this all the more courageous,” Moreno said after the verdict.
“The jury didn’t buy the overwhelming, overreaching innuendo,” she said. “This was a political prosecution because Dr. Al-Arian decided to speak out” about the plight of Palestinians.
The attorneys credit lengthy questionnaires submitted by prospective jurors that asked about everything from their reading habits to their views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
That helped secure a jury with the courage to judge the case on its merit, said Kevin Beck, an assistant federal public defender who represented Fariz.
“All four men had very different kinds of cases. The jury had to evaluate the evidence for each one of them in very different ways,” Beck said. “Where Hatim is concerned, it’s my belief that they recognized what he was trying to do in sending money to Gaza, and that was to help charities.”
And Al-Arian attorney William Moffitt pointed to a pretrial ruling by U.S. District Judge James Moody. To convict, Moody ruled that prosecutors had to prove the defendants knowingly and willfully worked to advance the Islamic Jihad’s illegal activities.
That opened the door to a defense rooted in the First Amendment, Moffitt said.
Al-Arian will remain in jail until his attorneys can file a new motion for bail. That won’t come immediately, Moffitt said.
“Let me rejoice first,” he said. “There’s a lot of things we have to think about.”
Turley expects a new trial for the charges on which jurors were deadlocked.
“I think the government’s in this for a penny or a pound,” he said. “This is an enormous embarrassment to the government. The government is so enormously invested in convicting Al-Arian, it’s hard to believe they will walk away. There are too many résumés at the Justice Department at risk.”
Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, who won convictions against Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel Rahman for plotting to blow up New York landmarks, advocated a new trial.
“It’s a terrible result, but there were important counts the jury hung on. Given the national priority of counterterrorism … I would argue the government will retry the large counts that have to do with aiding terrorist organizations,” McCarthy said.
Outside the courthouse, relatives and friends celebrated the verdict. Women and others shouted “God is great” in Arabic.
Ballut and Fariz were surrounded and embraced.
The Al-Arian family described the toll the ordeal has had on them.
Ali Al-Arian said he did not know what to expect. “It’s been really difficult without my dad,” he said.
Al-Arian and Hammoudeh have been jailed without bail since the 2003 indictment.
The night before the verdict, Ali visited with his father at the Orient Road Jail.
“He was really optimistic,” Ali said. “He said: ‘Trust me. There’s no way they’ll say I’m guilty.’ ”
Life once in shambles, former USF instructor Al-Najjar builds new oneBy Meg Laughlin, Times Staff Writer
Published Sunday, August 31, 2008 8:14 PM
CAIRO — The man at the corner fruit stand shows Mazen Al-Najjar the plump figs and cactus fruit he has cleaned for him.
“For your enjoyment, pasha,” the merchant says.
Al-Najjar bites into a juicy cactus fruit and thanks him. “Because of people like you, there is much enjoyment in my life — however long it is.”
Six years after his deportation from the United States, Al-Najjar will be the first to say he has struggled to get to a place where he could appreciate such small pleasures. The former University of South Florida instructor has had to overcome financial ruin, bouts of anxiety, the breakup of his family, diabetes and most recently a diagnosis of soft tissue cancer.
When Al-Najjar left Tampa on a charter jet in August 2002 headed for nobody-knew-where, he left behind more than 2,000 news stories, a documentary film on his case, and thousands of supporters who had protested his incarceration on secret evidence. The Palestinian was accused of having connections to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group.
Because his detention for 1,307 days without charge raised major questions about constitutional violations, it was the subject of columns and editorials in most major U.S. newspapers. The St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune wrote about Al-Najjar weekly for years.
Then, suddenly, he was gone.
As soon as a sister who lives in Lebanon picked him up at the Beirut airport, Al-Najjar faded into obscurity, exactly as he wanted. When he made his way to Cairo a few months later, no one wrote about it. And a year later, when he was indicted as a co-conspirator in the case against his brother-in-law, Sami Al-Arian, nobody came looking for him.
“The U.S. government held me thinking I’d testify against Sami,” he says. “When I had nothing to offer, they lost interest in me.”
Prosecutors never explained why they didn’t pursue Al-Najjar. The indictment effectively prevented him from leaving Egypt; he could have been picked up on an international arrest warrant if he tried to enter another country.
About four years after Al-Najjar’s deportation, Al-Arian pleaded guilty to one count of helping associates of a terrorist group in nonviolent ways. The deal came six months after a federal jury acquitted Al-Arian on eight charges and deadlocked on the remaining nine.
Al-Arian is now awaiting deportation to Egypt, having been held a year beyond his sentence because he refuses to testify against the head of a Virginia think tank. “Will it never end?” asks Al-Najjar.
Al-Najjar hated Cairo at first. The dust, the noise, the traffic drove him crazy. He was continually getting sick from the food and water. He was forever banging up his car. His wife, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and lived in Tampa for 15 years, was upset over the cruel turn their lives had taken. His daughters were miserable. He was unemployed and depressed.
“I missed everything about our lives in Tampa, from Dunkin’ Donuts to the Yellow Pages,” he says.
“Mazen was very nervous and unhappy in the beginning,” said Waleed Al-Shobakky, a journalist who worked with Al-Najjar, writing science articles for Al-Jazeera, a satellite TV network based in Qatar, and translating for Amnesty International. “He was overwhelmed and his blood sugar fluctuated wildly.”
Al-Najjar began to calm down after about a year, he says, when he realized he could make a living.
By then, he and his wife had divorced and she had moved across town with their daughters, now 13, 17 and 19. To support them, he worked 14-hour days alone in a small apartment.
“I so hated solitary confinement in prison, and here I was inflicting it on myself again,” he says.
Gradually things got better. A mall between his apartment and his ex-wife’s home put in a Cinnabon restaurant and he met his daughters there each week. They ate cinnamon buns, drank coffee and talked for hours, as they used to do in Tampa.
“I had my family again.”
He began taking taxis and buses around the city, meeting with scholars and students to debate politics and history. He took monthly cruises down the Nile, relaxing on the ship’s deck in the balmy night air. He prided himself on his ability to support his family, his homemade Turkish coffee and his palate for olive oil. He renovated his apartment.
“You’d have to live in Cairo to know what a feat it is to get a plumber, a carpenter and an electrician to show up,” he says.
He was buoyed last year when his sister Nahla Al-Arian moved to Cairo to ready a home for husband Sami, who could soon be deported.
Until his recent cancer surgery Al-Najjar, 51, walked the quarter mile from his place to Nahla’s spacious, air-conditioned apartment three or four times a week.
A large amount of muscle was removed from his left thigh, followed by radiation treatments, and Al-Najjar now walks with a pronounced limp.
“I don’t know how long I have left,” he says, “but I know I’m not going to waste a minute.”
In June, he married a psychiatrist in her early 40s. It is her first marriage and they are talking about having a child. “Even more reason to live,” he says.
On this night, Al-Najjar drives over to Nahla’s with the figs and cactus fruit he bought earlier. Nahla’s daughter and mother are there. Sami Al-Arian’s mother and brothers and sister arrive near midnight to discuss a recent development in Al-Arian’s case that may reunite him with his family before winter.
“Do you think it will happen this time?” Al-Arian’s brother Khalid asks Al-Najjar, who is considered the family authority on U.S. immigration. “We’ve been hopeful so many times only to be disappointed.”
“One day Sami will be out. Don’t worry about the future,” says Al-Najjar as he pops a huge purple fig in his mouth.
(Contact Meg Laughlin at email@example.com.)
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