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Ex-Professor Acquitted on Several Charges

By MITCH STACY, Associated Press Writer 54 minutes ago

In a stinging defeat for prosecutors, a former Florida professor accused of helping lead a terrorist group that has carried out suicide bombings against Israel was acquitted on nearly half the charges against him Tuesday, and the jury deadlocked on the rest.

The case against Sami Al-Arian, 47, had been seen as one of the biggest courtroom tests yet of the Patriot Act's expanded search-and-surveillance powers.

After a five-month trial and 13 days of deliberations, the jury acquitted Al-Arian of eight of the 17 counts against him, including a key charge of conspiring to maim and murder people overseas. The jurors deadlocked on the others, including charges he aided terrorists.

Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida computer engineering professor, wept after the verdicts, and his attorney, Linda Moreno hugged him. He will return to jail until prosecutors decide whether to retry him on the deadlocked charges.

Two co-defendants, Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Zayed Ballut, were acquitted of all charges. A third, Hatem Naji Fariz, was found not guilty on 24 counts, and jurors deadlocked on the remaining eight.

The U.S. Justice Department had no immediate comment.

Federal prosecutors said Sami Al-Arian and his co-defendants acted as the communications arm of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, spreading the word and raising money that went toward the suicide attacks that have killed hundreds.

Al-Arian was considered one of the most important terrorist figures to be brought to trial in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. His indictment in 2003 was hailed by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft as one of the first triumphs of the Patriot Act, which was enacted in the weeks after Sept. 11.

The Patriot Act gave the government greatly expanded powers and broke down the wall between foreign intelligence investigations and domestic law enforcement. In the Al-Arian case, officials said, it allowed separate FBI investigations — one of them a yearslong secret foreign intelligence probe of the professor's activities — to be combined and all the evidence used against him.

Al-Arian, a Palestinian who was born in Kuwait, has lived in the United States since 1975. He was granted permanent-resident status in 1989 and denied U.S. citizenship in 1996. He was fired from the university shortly after he was indicted.

The federal jury heard from 80 government witnesses and listened to often-plodding testimony about faxes and wiretapped phone calls.

The government alleged that the defendants were part of a Tampa terrorist cell that took the lead in determining the structure and goals of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the State Department has listed as a terrorist group.

Prosecutors said Al-Arian and other members of the terrorist organization used the university to give them cover as teachers and students, and held meetings under the guise of academic conferences.

Prosecutor Cherie Krigsman likened the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to the Mafia and named Al-Arian as one of its "crime bosses," like TV's Tony Soprano.

The defendants said that although they were vocal advocates in the United States for the Palestinian cause and may have celebrated news of the terrorist group's attacks, the government had no proof that they planned or knew about any violence. They said the money they raised and sent to the Palestinian territories was for legitimate charities.

Al-Arian's attorney, William Moffit, said the professor was being persecuted for espousing unpopular opinions that should be protected under the First Amendment.

"Any discussion of Sami Al-Arian being the most powerful man in the PIJ is fantasy," Moffitt said in his closing argument. "He never had control of the money, he never made any decisions."

The case was built on hundreds of pages of transcripts of wiretapped phone calls and faxes, records of money moving through accounts, documents seized from the defendants' homes and offices, and their own words on video. At times, the participants appeared to speak glowingly of the Palestinian "martyrs" who carried out suicide attacks.

The jury also heard from the father of Alisa Flatow, a New Jersey student killed in a 1995 bus bombing carried out by the terrorist group in Gaza.

Five others indicted in the case, including Al-Arian's brother-in-law, have not been arrested. The brother-in-law was deported in 2002, and the others also are out of the country.

 
 
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Jennifer Loewenstein
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