Former Fla. Professor to Be Deported
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Former Florida professor Sami al-Arian pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to provide support to a Palestinian terrorist organization and agreed to be deported from the United States in a deal with federal prosecutors, unsealed in federal court yesterday, that ends one of the nation's highest profile terrorism cases.
By entering a guilty plea Friday at a closed hearing in Tampa, al-Arian, 48, appears likely to soon win his release from prison, where he has spent most of his time in solitary confinement since his Feb. 20, 2003, arrest, and be reunited with his wife and five children, said his lawyer, Linda G. Moreno.
The U.S. government claimed a measure of vindication after suffering a stunning setback in December, when a federal jury in Tampa deadlocked on nine charges that al-Arian aided terrorists, found him not guilty of eight other counts -- including conspiracy to maim or murder, perjury, and immigration violations -- and acquitted three co-defendants on all 34 charges against them.
The 15-page deal, accepted yesterday by U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr., leaves a murky outcome for the first criminal prosecution that relied mainly on vast amounts of secretly gathered intelligence against terrorism suspects collected under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Then-U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft called al-Arian's 2003 indictment an early victory for the USA Patriot Act, which gave prosecutors access to 20,000 hours of secretly tapped phone calls and hundreds of fax intercepts. Yesterday, Ashcroft's successor, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, noted that al-Arian had reversed a decade of denials and confessed to supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has killed hundreds of civilians in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank through suicide attacks and was declared a terrorist group by the United States in 1995.
"We have a responsibility not to allow our nation to be a safe haven for those who provide assistance to the activity of terrorists," Gonzales said in a written statement. "Sami Al-Arian has already spent significant time behind bars and will now lose the right to live in the country he calls home."
Moreno, al-Arian's lawyer, said that given his pending sentencing, scheduled for May 1, "this is not a time for any political statement to be made." But she said the former University of South Florida computer engineer was "at peace" with "a just resolution to bring about closure to a nightmare."
"Dr. al-Arian has been very sensitive to the suffering of his family and his five children, and in particular his two youngest children, who have been the most traumatized by having their father in prison for three years," Moreno said.
Douglas W. Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University in California and an assistant attorney general from 1985 to 1989, called the deal "a face-saving gesture" in a test case that was a serious disappointment to the government.
"There was more there than the department could prove, and when that happens, compromise is the result," Kmiec said.
David D. Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who represented al-Arian's brother-in-law, who was deported before standing trial, said the government "stood down" and abandoned a retrial of al-Arian on the eight remaining charges.
"It's consistent with a general pattern of overcharging in terrorism, and being unable to come up with the evidence to bear out their initial charges," Cole said. He noted that authorities first sought to imprison al-Arian for life.
Instead, prosecutors agreed to recommend a prison sentence at the low end of federal guidelines of 46 to 57 months. That would be close to the time al-Arian would be credited with serving since his arrest, Moreno said.
In the unsealed agreement, al-Arian admitted to trying to hide the identity of Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Shallah, who was a longtime top official of al-Arian's university-affiliated think tank in Tampa, a relationship that was detailed in evidence admitted under FISA wiretaps.
While al-Arian said his support for the Palestinian group predated 1995, when it became illegal under the U.S. government designation, he admitted to filing for immigration benefits for leading Muslim scholar Bashir Nafi and later helping his brother-in-law, Mazen al-Najjar, in a U.S. court case in which Nafi and Najjar denied association with the group, a claim al-Arian acknowledged was not true.
Al-Arian, a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian, was a visible Muslim activist and U.S. campaign contributor. His avowed hostility to Israel made him a controversial symbol for free speech advocates before prosecutors alleged he was Palestinian Islamic Jihad's de facto leader and head of a criminal organization.