By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
TAMPA, Dec. 13 -- The family and friends of former college professor Sami al-Arian greeted his acquittal on terrorism charges last week with exclamations of "Allahu akbar" -- Arabic for "God is great" -- and "God bless America."
It was, they said, a political and moral victory.
But in the week since those moments of euphoria, it has become increasingly clear to his supporters that his legal triumph was not necessarily a personal one.
Al-Arian, who was arrested more than two years ago, is still jailed as federal prosecutors decide whether to retry him on the counts on which the jury deadlocked. Even if prosecutors drop the outstanding charges, immigration authorities have indicated that he will probably remain incarcerated while he is facing deportation proceedings.
Outside the federal courthouse in Tampa on Tuesday, a civil rights group conducted a small protest and waved signs that said "Let Sami Out" and "The Jury Has Spoken."
"The anxiety is still there," al-Arian's wife, Nahla, said earlier near their home close to the University of South Florida, where al-Arian was a well-liked professor of computer science. The couple has five children. "I feel anxious. I feel tired. I want my husband back with us."
Al-Arian's case was considered a critical test of government tactics under the USA Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism law that expanded law enforcement's power to conduct surveillance. He and three co-defendants faced charges that they conspired with leaders of Palestinian Islamic Jihad -- which the United States has designated as a terrorist group -- to provide the group money and advice.
The accusations were based on 20,000 hours of phone conversations and hundreds of faxes secretly monitored beginning in 1993.
A videotape showed al-Arian saying "Death to Israel" and a letter found at his house had him praising a suicide bombing in Israel. A close associate at the university, Ramadan Shallah, left for the Middle East in 1995 and within months became the leader of Islamic Jihad.
But jurors said afterward that the evidence, though voluminous, did not clearly link al-Arian to acts of violence. They apparently embraced the defense contention that though al-Arian may have been sympathetic to terrorist groups, he did not provide them material aid for terrorism.
Al-Arian, 47, was found not guilty on eight of 17 counts, including conspiracy to maim or murder. Some jurors said later that on most of the charges on which they deadlocked, a large majority favored acquittal, according to local news reports.
While the case has drawn national attention as a potential harbinger of terrorism prosecutions to come, it has stirred greater controversy locally at many levels -- raising fears about a school, provoking criticism of the Tampa Tribune's coverage of terrorist connections, opening a debate over academic freedom at the University of South Florida, and becoming a central issue in the 2004 U.S. Senate race won by Republican Mel Martinez over Betty Castor, the Democrat who was the president of the university in the 1990s when it suspended but did not fire al-Arian.
Aside from his work as a Palestinian activist, al-Arian was the founder of a mosque and a 250-student school here, which has struggled because prosecutors said it was a front for al-Arian's efforts to aid terrorist groups.
"This is an American school," Ayman Barakat, a used-car exporter who is the chairman of the school's board, said as he walked around the 12-acre campus. "The only difference is we teach, in addition to everything else, Arabic and Islamic studies. Our kids have gone to Yale and Duke. It's not a front."
"When he was first arrested, there were many here who had doubts about the American justice system," Barakat said. "When the verdict came out, they knew it could work."
Whether al-Arian might ever work at the school again is in doubt, however.
Steve Cole, a spokesman at the U.S. attorney's office in Tampa, said prosecutors have not decided whether to retry al-Arian on the deadlocked charges. If they do, that could mean years more behind bars.
"We don't really have a timetable for a decision, but it's not something that's going to take months," he said.
Once the legal proceedings are completed, al-Arian "most likely will be put into removal proceedings" for deportation, said Pam McCullough, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman. She declined to say what the grounds are for deporting al-Arian.
To the anger of some professors at the University of South Florida, officials suspended al-Arian again, in 2001, just days after he appeared on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor," where he was chastised for his affiliations by host Bill O'Reilly, who said, "If I was the CIA, I'd follow you wherever you went."
The TV appearance led to a flood of angry phone calls to the university from people who said tax money should not be paying al-Arian's salary. He was eventually fired.
Even today, faculty members are split over his role at the university and in the world at large, said Roy C. Weatherford, president of the faculty union. "Some believe he has been treated unfairly," he said. "And some believe he should never again be associated with the university."
In the absence of guilty verdicts, questions about al-Arian revolve around his sympathies for terrorists, his affiliation with Shallah and the strong words with which he condemned Israel.
His supporters defend his words as a matter of free speech. His wife put them in a political context.
"What people do not understand is that victims say bad words about their victimizers," Nahla al-Arian said, when asked about some of her husband's remarks. "We are the victims. . . . We don't hate people. We don't hate the Jews. We hate the occupation."