TAMPA, Fla. — Attorneys for three terrorism defendants told jurors Tuesday the men were never associated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and had innocent explanations for comments that were wiretapped by investigators.
Federal prosecutors say Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Zayed Ballut, Hatem Naji Fariz and their codefendant, Sami Al-Arian, a fired University of South Florida professor, worked to raise money in the U.S. to further the goals of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The group, listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department, is blamed for more than 100 deaths in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But in opening statements Tuesday, lawyers for the three men being tried with Al-Arian painted them as family men who supported the Middle East peace process and were dedicated to providing charity to the needy in Palestinian territories.
Al-Arian's attorneys and prosecutors had presented their opening statements Monday.
Defense lawyers maintain that prosecutors will be able to provide no evidence directly tying the men to the terrorist group or any criminal activity. And they said there were reasonable explanations for evidence offered by prosecutors.
"It's the interpretation of these circumstances that becomes critical during this trial," Hammoudeh's attorney, Stephen Bernstein, told jurors.
Al-Arian, 47, and the others face a 53-count indictment that includes charges of providing material support to terrorists, racketeering and conspiracy. The trial is expected to last at least six months. Five other men have been indicted but have not been arrested.
On Monday, federal prosecutor Walter E. Furr III characterized Al-Arian as one of the most powerful figures in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
He said the codefendants worked alongside Al-Arian to support terrorist bombings in Israel and Palestinian territories using an academic think tank and a Tampa charity founded by Al-Arian as fundraising fronts.
Al-Arian's attorney, William Moffitt, characterized his client Monday as a scholar and political activist who spoke out with strong words against Israel but committed no crimes.
Hammoudeh, 45, is a former graduate student at USF and an administrator at the Islamic Academy of Florida founded by Al-Arian. Fariz, 32, managed a medical clinic in Spring Hill. Ballut, 43, is a small-business owner.