A Plea Deal in Florida

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

AT THE SENTENCING yesterday of Sami al-Arian following his recently released plea deal with federal prosecutors, U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. called the former computer engineering professor a "master manipulator" who was "an active leader" of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad while living in Florida. His sentence? The maximum the law permits: a year and a half more in prison.

To hear Mr. al-Arian's family and supporters describe the plea agreement, you might think the defendant been exonerated. "This agreement in no way diminishes . . . the victory achieved in court," a group called the Tampa Bay Coalition for Justice and Peace announced, referring to Mr. al-Arian's acquittal last year on eight of 17 terrorism-related charges against him. "We welcome this resolution following an ordeal that kept Dr. Al-Arian from his family for over three years." By contrast, the Justice Department described the deal as if it were a big win in the war on terrorism. "This conviction is the result of years of exhaustive investigative and prosecutorial work," proclaimed U.S. Attorney Paul I. Perez in Florida.

In fact, both claims are bunk. Mr. al-Arian admitted to one conspiracy charge and accepted deportation while the government dropped the other charges remaining against him. Mr. al-Arian has now conceded what he had long denied: that he aided -- even helped manage -- a reprehensible terrorist organization. As Judge Moody put it yesterday, "You lifted not one finger" to stop suicide bombings. "To the contrary, you laughed when you heard of the bombings."

Here is some of what Mr. al-Arian admits: Throughout the late 1980s and early '90s, while a professor at the University of South Florida, he "was associated with several organizations, including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad," and knew that a co-worker at his university-based think tank, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, was associated with it, too. After President Bill Clinton in 1995 prohibited material support for Islamic Jihad, Mr. al-Arian "performed services" for it anyway. He helped people associated with the group navigate the immigration system and move money around. And when Mr. Shallah left the think tank and became secretary general of the group following Israel's assassination of his predecessor, Mr. al-Arian "falsely stated that Mr. Shallah was not involved in any political activities while at [the think tank] and that Shallah had been engaged in only scholarly work." In other words, Mr. al-Arian has admitted to knowingly assisting and covering for the head of a notorious terrorist organization.

Yet despite what the judge called "clear" evidence, the government has settled this case on terms under which Mr. al-Arian will go free in less than two years. It's not clear whether the government charged Mr. al-Arian too aggressively or simply put on a bad performance at trial. In either event it ill becomes the government to claim victory. Concerning Mr. al-Arian, a sometime rallying point for advocates of free speech and academic freedom, the verdict is in: He is not only a terrorist supporter but a liar, too.

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