-- Sami al-Arian, the former Florida university professor whose trial on terrorism charges began here Monday, might hold controversial or even scary views in support of the Palestinian resistance against Israel, but it would be un-American if he were convicted for speaking his mind, his attorney told jurors.
"The language of resistance, of political discourse, is sometimes harsh," lawyer William Moffitt said in an opening statement in defense of his client, standing trial for conspiracy to murder Israelis in suicide attacks. "But a political speaker must be free to excite his audience."
Al-Arian and three co-defendants are charged with a years-long conspiracy through their alleged membership in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Their trial opened with the lead prosecutor recounting the group's 19 years of sneak attacks in Israel and the Palestinian territories, including stabbings, shootings and suicide bombings.
Prosecutor Walter Furr outlined how al-Arian, co-defendants Sameeh Taha Hammoudeh, Ghassan Zayed Ballut and Hatem Naji Fariz, and five others who have not been arrested disseminated news of the group's attacks and other propaganda, raised money for it, and helped its leaders communicate by telephone and fax without, they thought, being detected. But a decade's worth of wiretaps to be used in the case show that al-Arian was an Islamic Jihad leader and "for a time maybe the organization's most powerful man in the world," Furr said.
Al-Arian attorney Moffitt noted that his client has not been charged with actually taking part in any violence. He neither denied nor confirmed that his client was affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a 26-year-old group designated as terrorist by the U.S. government in 1995. Instead, Moffitt urged jurors not to convict al-Arian if they conclude he has connections to the group.
"The government itself has said you are free to praise groups that engage in terrorism as a means of achieving their ends," Moffitt said. "This case concerns Dr. al-Arian's right to speak, our right to hear what he has to say and the attempt of the powerful to silence him."
Al-Arian's supporters rallied outside the federal courthouse here. "He knows he didn't do anything wrong," said his wife, Nahla. "We have been waiting for this moment to have the trial."
Noting that some of the U.S. intelligence about Palestinian Islamic Jihad dovetails with Israeli intelligence on the subject -- and referring to dozens of Israeli victims of Islamic Jihad attacks who have been called to testify by the government -- Moffitt said, "most of the evidence will come from Israel. Israelis are here to silence Dr. al-Arian."
"If hundreds of Israelis are here to silence Dr. al-Arian, we say, go home," Moffitt added. "In the United States, we remain true to our heritage." He said that al-Arian "came to the U.S. to publicize the continued favoritism for Israel here in the Middle East conflict" and that those political activities are what the government is trying to criminalize in the case.
Referring obliquely to U.S. District Judge James Moody's decision to allow only brief references in court to the opposing historical grievances of Palestinians and Israelis, Moffitt said, "There will be no truth about the Middle East conflict in this court."
Al-Arian, a professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida until he was fired in 2003, was the leader of two Muslim institutes affiliated with the university that the government says were fronts for Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The secret probe of him began in 1991, with wiretaps starting in 1994, Furr said Monday. The recorded conversations -- Moffitt said there eventually were 472,000 of them -- were kept secret from the part of the FBI that handles criminal probes until about the past two years.
But while al-Arian and his colleagues were talkative about their activities at the start, after October 1995, when their offices were searched, they became extremely tight-lipped, the indictment shows.
Because that was the same year the U.S. government declared Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist -- meaning all dealings with it were illegal -- the government is using a conspiracy prosecution to build a case around the al-Arian group's pre-1995 statements and actions. The conspiracy charges allowed prosecutors to include in the pre- and post-1995 material as part of a wider pattern of alleged criminality.
Among the revelations in court Monday was prosecutor Furr's statement that Islamic Jihad had sent $1.8 million to al-Arian's university-based group in Tampa between 1990 and 1993, before Islamic Jihad's financier, Iran, cut its funding in a short-lived dispute.