Saudi Acquitted of Internet Terror
Defense Hails Verdict on Islamic Sites as Victory for Free Speech
By Susan Schmidt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2004; Page A03
An Idaho jury yesterday rejected the federal government's case against a Saudi doctoral student accused of aiding terrorists by running an Internet network that sought to raise money and recruit fighters for holy war abroad.
The jury acquitted Sami Omar Hussayen on three counts of providing material support to terrorism, a blow to the government in its first effort to use language in the USA Patriot Act that makes it illegal to provide "expert advice" to terrorists. Hussayen's attorneys argued that his creation and administration of Islamic Web sites represented constitutionally protected free speech.
"I hope the message is that the First Amendment is important and meaningful in this country," defense attorney David Nevin told reporters after the verdict.
U.S. Attorney Thomas E. Moss said in an interview that his office is disappointed but determined to pursue terrorism cases aggressively.
"For terrorists to flourish, they have got to have more than people who will strap on bombs. They need to recruit, and what better way to recruit than through the use of the Internet?" Moss said. "This verdict is not going to deter us."
A jury of four men and eight women deliberated for a week on the three material support charges and 11 counts of false statements and visa fraud. The jury acquitted Hussayen on three of the lesser charges and deadlocked on eight others.
Moss said his office will decide over the next week whether to retry Hussayen on the undecided visa counts. Hussayen has been in jail for more than a year and will remain there pending deportation proceedings. He did not testify at the trial.
The investigation of Hussayen, a doctoral candidate in computer science at the University of Idaho, has been one of the most potentially far-reaching terrorism cases since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Hussayen, 34, was accused of conspiracy and providing support to terrorists in Chechnya and Israel, and of conspiracy to raise funds for the military wing of the Islamic Resistance Movement, also known as Hamas.
The government charged in its indictment that Hussayen "knew and intended that the material support he provided [was] to be used in preparation for, and to commit, violations of federal law involving murder, maiming, kidnapping, and the destruction of property."
Juror John Steger, 68, a retired forest service engineer, said in a telephone interview that the jury was guided by instructions on the First Amendment from U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge. The jury, he said, concluded that "you can print material that advocates illegal action [and] if by printing it doesn't cause people to take imminent action, you are protected."
Prosecutors sought to argue that the case turned not on whether Hussayen knew or intended for people to act on the jihadist materials he disseminated, but on whether he knew and intended that his Web site work would aid terrorists or terrorist organizations in general.
David Cole, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown Law School who has argued against broader government powers, said the verdict is a lesson that the government should "tread lightly."
"The defense said the assistance was wholly in the form of speech," said Cole, and the expert advice Hussayen provided "was all in the service of speech."
Paul Rosenzweig, a constitutional lawyer at the Heritage Foundation who has squared off in debates with Cole over the material support law, said the verdict "may show that we are trying to figure out whether criminal laws fit with the new paradigm of terrorist activity."
"Fighting or paying those groups are fairly clear and easy examples that we understand. This is new and different," he said. "Computer support or other unusual forms of support that are not traditionally conceived of as criminal activity -- it's not like he provided guns."
Hussayen comes from an influential family in Saudi Arabia and was represented by a high-profile legal team paid for by the Saudi government. Although the Saudi Embassy paid the bills and even urged that prosecutors drop the case, diplomats said they did not countenance Hussayen or the Web site organization, the Islamic Assembly of North America. Embassy officials said the Islamic assembly is influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, a sometimes radical movement opposed to rule of the Saudi royal family.
Nevin acknowledged that his client is no pacifist, and that he believes Muslims should take up arms against those who oppress them. But he said that four fatwas Hussayen posted from Saudi sheikhs extolling suicide martyrdom attacks did not represent his views and were protected by the First Amendment.
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