-- Three co-defendants of accused terrorist leader Sami al-Arian, a former Florida university professor on trial here, staunchly deny any connection to the Palestinian terrorist group at the heart of the case, their lawyers said in court Tuesday.
"This is a case of no evidence," said Bruce Howie, attorney for Chicago dry cleaner Ghassan Zayed Ballut. After scouring six years of his client's computer use and all his bank records, "the government came up with nothing."
There is a vast discrepancy between the gravity and detail in the charges against al-Arian, and those against the other three on trial, whom the prosecution calls rank-and-file members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) organization, which sponsors suicide attacks on Israelis, according to court documents.
Some defense attorneys said outside the courtroom in recent days that the three defendants -- Ballut, former university student Sameeh Taha Hammoudeh and Illinois charity manager Hatim Naji Fariz -- were swept into the case because of prosecutors' need to build a criminal case of conspiracy -- in this case, conspiracy to kill and maim hundreds of Israelis since the 1980s.
Legal experts said that the U.S. government had little choice but to craft a conspiracy case. The vast bulk of their evidence, derived from years of secret wiretaps and monitoring of faxes, centers on the early to mid-1990s, before al-Arian's offices and home were searched and he became more circumspect over the telephone.
But the statute of limitations allows the prosecution to charge someone for crimes going back only five years -- unless the charge is conspiracy, in which case the government can bring in allegations going back decades, as it has done in this trial.
The problem for the prosecution, defense attorneys said, is that those secretly monitored wiretaps and faxes show al-Arian discussing intimate details of PIJ's operations not with his three co-defendants but with five other men.
All of those five men were top PIJ leaders with al-Arian for years, U.S. prosecutors said, and all of them have been charged with him with conspiracy to murder -- but they are overseas and will not be tried in this case.
Defense attorneys and criminal lawyers who have observed the case said the government was in a jam -- how could it put on a trial for criminal conspiracy and have only one conspirator at the defense table?
"The three defendants on trial with al-Arian are basically stage props," said Steve Crawford, a former federal prosecutor who has followed the case and who recently represented Hammoudeh's wife on an unrelated fraud charge. "The government didn't have enough of the big guns [from PIJ] here to give a visual showing of a conspiracy, so they sweep in the poor mopes at the bottom."
Defense lawyers and prosecutors declined to comment. U.S. District Judge James Moody has barred them from speaking about the case outside the courtroom.
The five overseas defendants who are not on trial now were caught in hundreds of phone calls and faxes discussing the key strategic issues then facing PIJ -- deep internal struggles, the disappearance of millions of dollars, how to placate its angry financial backers in the Iranian government, and whether to merge with the Islamic Resistance Movement, a competing militant Palestinian group.
The five are Ramadan Shallah, who worked at an al-Arian think tank at the University of South Florida and who now runs PIJ from Syria; Abd al Aziz Awda, PIJ's original spiritual leader; al-Arian's brother-in-law, Mazen al-Najjar; leading Muslim scholar Bashir Nafi; and Muhammed Tasir al-Khatib, the group's alleged treasurer.
Lawyer Stephen Bernstein said in court that his client, Hammoudeh, was not part of any criminal conspiracy and staunchly believes in peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, although PIJ bitterly opposes them. "His views are the antithesis of PIJ," he said.