Looking Back at 2006: Sami Al-Arian

Sami Al-Arian
TAMPA -

This month marks one year since Sami Al-Arian was acquitted on most of the charges against him. This was the sound that greeted supporters then outside Tampa's federal courthouse:

SOUND: Cheering outside courthouse.

His wife Nahla said the 'God of Justice' was with her husband. She applauded the American justice system.

NAHLA: I feel it has been reaffirmed and it has been strengthened even more, despite all the power of this most powerful country in the world, I mean the government. But the American people followed their conscience, and they acquitted my husband.

But one year later, his case is anything but closed.

Al-Arian now wears prison number 19638. He sits inside the Northern Neck Regional Jail in Warsaw, Virginia, about 30 miles northwest of Richmond. And he could be there for quite some time.

He's there after a Tampa judge's ruling that compelled Al-Arian to testify in the grand jury investigation of the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Va. But Al-Arian's attorneys contend this would violate the plea agreement that spared him a second federal trial.

Al-Arian's attorneys claimed plea agreement gave him immunity from having to testify. One of his attorneys is Peter Erlinder, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota.

ERLINDER: A grand jury subpoena - together with a grant of immunity - would usually result in a person having to testify and answer questions before the grand jury, or risk being held in contempt of court, and then being held in jail for the length of the grand jury session, which is a maximum of 18 months. And then, that could happen again in front of another grand jury, which has a life of 18 months.

Al-Arian was scheduled to be deported in April. He could now be imprisoned for another year and a half.

Al-Arian and three other men were charged with raising money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The group was outlawed by President Clinton after a bus bombing in Israel in1995 killed several people, including an American.

Al-Arian's attorneys acknowledged during the trial his association with the Jihad.

Federal prosecutors built their case on more than 20,000 hours of wiretapped conversations, some of which dated back 15 years.

But jurors were instructed that they had to hear proof the money Al-Arian collected in the U.S. was used to support terrorism. Jurors acquitted him on eight charges, but deadlocked on nine others. They include a conspiracy charge that Al-Arian ran a racketeering criminal enterprise to raise money for Islamic Jihad.

One of the jurors said prosecutors simply failed to make their case.

JUROR: I sat in that room for six months, and I've seen more than anybody out there's ever going to see. And a lot of it, we could not come up with a decision.

He was succinct when asked what decided the case for him.

JUROR : A lack of evidence.

Five months later, Al-Arian was sentenced.

U.S. District Court Judge James Moody sentenced the ousted USF professor to the maximum prison term allowed under the terms of the plea agreement.

Judge Moody called Al-Arian a quote, 'master manipulator' and said he repeatedly lied about his involvement with Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

The judge said Al-Arian claimed he was against violence and wanted only to raise money for women and orphans. Moody said, quote, 'Your only connection to women and orphans is to create them.'

After the sentencing, Al-Arian's supporters called the judge's ruling 'politically motivated.' Al-Arian's attorney, Linda Moreno, says the jury repudiated all claims that Al-Arian had anything to do with violence.

MORENO: This plea agreement was reached after a jury acquitted Dr. Al-Arian of the most serious counts of the indictment, after a six-month trial, where the government put on every witness that the wanted to, offered into evidence every document that they wanted to, essentially pulled the trigger and shot every bullet. And they missed Dr. Al-Arian.

Some characterized the jury's verdict as a defeat for the prosecution. But U.S. Attorney Paul Perez claimed victory, saying the pursuit of Al-Arian allowed federal agents to disrupt a terrorist cell operating in this country. He said the plea deal justified the prosecution.

PEREZ: It also vindicates the criminal investigation and prosecution that has been wrongly criticized by some members of the public as politically driven, and a harassment of a factually innocent person who was purportedly merely exercising his First Amendment rights and advocating for an unpopular cause.

Now, whether Al-Arian will be allowed to see the light of day outside his jail cell and return to the Middle East is up to a federal judge.

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