Line Between Ideas, Aid is at Issue as Terrorism Trial Begins

From the archive (legacy material)

John-Thor Dahlburg | Los Angeles Times | 7 June 2005

TAMPA, Fla. — A lawyer for an ex-university professor facing charges that he supported and helped finance a terrorist group in the Middle East tore into the government’s case Monday, claiming that Sami Al-Arian was being prosecuted not for any illegal deeds but for expressing pro-Palestinian views.
“This case will be about Dr. Al-Arian’s right to speak, your right to hear him and the attempt of the powerful to silence him,” defense lawyer William Moffitt told jurors in his opening statement.
Under beefed-up security in U.S. District Court, federal prosecutors opened their case against Al-Arian, 47, and three others accused of racketeering, conspiracy to murder people outside the U.S. and providing material support to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Each man could be sentenced to life in prison if found guilty.
The government alleges that Al-Arian and codefendants Sameeh Hammoudeh, 44, Ghassan Zayed Ballut, 43, and Hatem Naji Fariz, 32, although not personally responsible for acts of violence, promoted Palestinian Islamic Jihad — an organization known as PIJ that calls for the destruction of Israel — helped facilitate its international communications and raised money to support it.
“These people were way above the level of any fool going to strap a bomb on himself and go stand by people waiting for a bus,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Walter Furr told jurors. Al-Arian, the prosecutor claimed, “was the secretary of the board of directors of the PIJ. For a time, he was maybe the most powerful man in the world in that organization.”
Furr said that in a letter hand-carried to Kuwait in February 1995, soon after Palestinian Islamic Jihad suicide bombers killed 19 Israelis, Al-Arian, who has made statements disavowing terrorism, asked for “true support so operations like this can continue.”
“They were very effectively leading double lives,” Furr said of the defendants. “They were pure PIJ.”
Providing a preview of Al-Arian’s defense, Moffitt argued that U.S. law did not bar people from belonging to a terrorist organization or espousing such a group’s cause as long as the individuals did not engage in illegal actions. He promised jurors that during the trial, which could last six months to a year, “there will be no evidence any violent act took place, and no violent act was ever planned to take place in the United States.”
“The outstanding feature of this case is freedom of speech,” Moffitt said. He noted that the government planned to call numerous witnesses from Israel, and predicted jurors would conclude that “the Israelis are here to silence Dr. Al-Arian.”
The Kuwait-born son of Palestinian refugees, Al-Arian was arrested Feb. 20, 2003, and fired from his position as a professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida in Tampa after his indictment. He has been in custody since his arrest.
Furr said the government intended to prove that Al-Arian used a think tank he founded while at the university, as well as charities he started, to promote and assist Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
In June 1995, the director of the think tank, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, left Tampa. Later that year, he became leader of Damascus, Syria-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Furr said the evidence would show that the defendants used 20 bank accounts to launder money. From 1990 to 1993, the federal prosecutor said, they received $1.8 million from overseas sources, chiefly from Iran, to pay local expenses, organize U.S. conferences and fundraisers and pay for three-way telephone calls that enabled Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to talk to people in Iran or Syria.
But, Moffitt said, “not one bomb, not one stick of dynamite” could be proven to have gone to Palestinian Islamic Jihad as a result of the telephone conferences organized by Al-Arian.
The prosecution has also claimed that Al-Arian and the other defendants helped perpetuate a “cycle” of terrorism by sending money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers and imprisoned militants, thereby encouraging fresh attacks.
But Moffitt said sending the aid was not a criminal offense unless prosecutors could establish that there had been a promise of assistance for terrorist activities in advance.
“It is not against the law for Dr. Al-Arian or anyone to feed women and children,” the defense lawyer said.
Ridiculing the government’s allegation that Al-Arian had been a key figure in Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Moffitt said that in wiretaps from 1994 to 2003, the FBI listened in on 472,239 of his client’s phone calls and deemed 295 relevant to the case.
“This was anything other than a very active organization,” he said.
Moffitt said Al-Arian had been allowed to remain at liberty for years as the FBI investigated him, and even had visited the White House concerning Muslim matters.