TAMPA, Fla. — The four defendants allegedly called themselves "brothers," members in "the Movement." Today, federal prosecutors will begin trying to prove to a jury that former professor Sami Al-Arian and three others, using Al-Arian's state-funded university as cover, were key figures in a Middle Eastern terrorist organization.
Al-Arian, 47, a former computer engineering professor at the University of South Florida, says he is a pro-Palestinian activist and devout Muslim who is being harassed because of his views and faith. U.S. authorities charge that Al-Arian and his co-defendants did much more -- that they promoted and helped finance Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant anti-Israel group designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
According to Asst. U.S. Atty. Terry Furr, Al-Arian and other members of an alleged Tampa cell served as a fundraising and communications hub for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has been blamed for killing more than 100 people in suicide bombings and other attacks in the Middle East.
Opening statements in the case are scheduled for today. In a preview of the government's case, Furr last month accused the defendants of being an integral part of a "terror cycle" in which attacks in Israel would be exploited to solicit donations to finance more attacks.
"This is an elitist little group of people, all highly educated, trying to convince people to go kill themselves on their behalf," Furr told U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr., who is presiding over the trial.
Since his arrest Feb. 20, 2003, Al-Arian, a permanent resident alien in the United States since 1989, has been kept mostly in solitary confinement at the Coleman Federal Correction Complex in Sumter County, about 60 miles northeast of Tampa.
The 53-count indictment accuses Al-Arian and eight co-defendants, five of whom are at large or overseas and unavailable for trial, of involvement in a "criminal organization whose members and associates engaged in acts of violence including murder, extortion, money laundering, fraud and misuse of visas, and operated worldwide including in the Middle District of Florida," which includes Tampa. If convicted, each of the accused could be sentenced to up to life in prison.
None of the defendants is accused of being linked to Al Qaeda, or committing acts of violence in the United States or elsewhere.
Juliette Kayam, a former Justice Department official who is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, called the Tampa trial an example of "mission creep" in the Bush administration's prosecution of alleged terrorist offenses.
Former federal prosecutor Dan Richman said it was vital for the United States to attempt to eradicate terrorism organizations even if Americans were not the organizations' targets.
"It's critical we not allow our country to be used as a base for raising money and perpetrating terrorist attacks in other countries," said Richman, who teaches criminal procedure at Fordham Law School in New York.
Three other men were arrested the same day as Al-Arian and are being tried with him: U.S. citizens Ghassan Zayed Ballut, 43, of Tinley Park, Ill., and Hatem Naji Fariz, 32, of Spring Hill, Fla.; and noncitizen Sameeh Hammoudeh, 44, a former student and instructor at the University of South Florida.
The Bush administration has pointed to the indictments as an example of the benefits of the Patriot Act. Among other things, the act made it easier for criminal investigators and intelligence agents in terrorism cases to share information. Congress is considering whether to renew some provisions of the act.
The government's case against Al-Arian and the others is complex. The indictment -- which includes charges of conspiracy to commit racketeering, conspiracy to kill or maim innocent people outside the United States, providing material support to a terrorist organization, and money laundering -- covers 159 pages.
Prosecutors revised it in September.
"They dropped some counts," Al-Arian defense co-counsel Linda Moreno said. "They also do not refer to Dr. Al-Arian anymore as the [U.S.] leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. We feel that this is significant."
In an interview Friday, the Tampa lawyer declined to comment on the charges or on the strategy for Al-Arian's defense.
"We'll make our opening statements Monday, and I think that what needs to be said will be revealed," Moreno said.
Since his arrest, Al-Arian has unceasingly proclaimed his innocence. A sympathetic website, freesamialarian.com, calls the Kuwaiti-born son of Palestinian refugees a political prisoner and says the Bush administration is trying to silence him because of his vocal support for Palestinian rights.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad was founded by Palestinian students in Egypt who were influenced by the revolution in Iran in 1979.