Trial of Sami Al Arian to begin next month - wants proceedings moved out of Florida - Politicians may be called to testify
April 29, 2005
Trial of Sami Al-Arian May Impact Both Political Camps in Washington
BY JOSH GERSTEIN - Staff Reporter of the Sun
A terrorism trial set to get under way in Florida next month could have repercussions for Washington politicians at both ends of the political spectrum.
Lawyers for a former computer science professor charged with being the head of the American branch of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Sami Al-Arian, have named more than 20 political figures with whom he claims to have had conversations in the years leading up to his indictment in 2003.
The figures cited in the case include Presidents Bush and Clinton, Senator Clinton, and a top adviser to Mr. Bush, Karl Rove.
In a letter filed in federal court in Tampa last week, a lawyer for Mr. Al-Arian, William Moffitt, said he believes surveillance tapes may exist of his client speaking with Republicans such as House Speaker Dennis Hastert, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, and Senator Lott of Mississippi. Mr. Al-Arian may also have had recorded contacts with Democrats, including Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Rep. James Moran of Virginia, Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, and the former House minority whip, David Bonior, according to the letter, which asked prosecutors to turn over all such recordings to the defense.
Mr. Moffitt said in a brief interview yesterday that he now has obtained tapes or transcripts of some of those conversations. "Some of them are no longer missing," the defense attorney said.
Mr. Moffitt said if he seeks to use those recordings, he might call some of the politicians on the list to testify to the tapes' accuracy. However, he declined yesterday to be more specific about whom he might subpoena. Mr. Moffitt said he was reluctant to telegraph his strategy to prosecutors.
"There's no way I should be forced to exchange a witness list," Mr. Moffitt said. "I'm not in a position to say whether some of those people will be called or not."
Mr. Al-Arian and three other men are scheduled to go on trial May 16 on charges they operated as an American front for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that has waged a campaign of bombings and other violent attacks against military and civilian targets in Israel. Mr. Al-Arian, 47, faces charges of racketeering conspiracy, extortion, money laundering, and providing material support to a terrorist organization.
A Washington-based terrorism expert who has tracked Mr. Al-Arian's activities for more than a decade, Steven Emerson, said the defense's gambit to expose Mr. Al-Arian's political Rolodex could leave many politicians red-faced. "It will certainly be embarrassing to the leaders who met with Al-Arian, and it will be embarrassing to the political consultants who met with Al-Arian," Mr. Emerson said.
The letter listing Mr. Al-Arian's alleged political contacts is dated September 2004, but was filed recently as part of a government bid to block his lawyers from arguing at trial that his actions were part of a legitimate political campaign on behalf of Palestinians.
The public filing of the politicians' names was first reported by the Tampa Tribune.
After recounting Mr. Al-Arian's meetings with Mr. Bush, Mr. Clinton, and others, Mr. Moffitt wrote, "Dr. Al-Arian's access to these political figures coupled with the fact that there was public source information regarding many of the contentions that form the basis of the government's indictment seem to belie the notion that Dr. Al-Arian was in any way considered by anyone in the intelligence or law enforcement communities to be any kind of threat to the United States or a threat to harm any officials of the United States."
Among others named in the letter as contacts of Mr. Al-Arian were: a former chief of counterterrorism at the CIA, Vincent Cannistraro; a Republican political consultant, Grover Norquist; a former Republican congressman from Georgia, Bob Barr; a former Republican congressman and homeland security official, Asa Hutchinson; Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, a Democrat; Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, a Democrat; Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, a Republican, and a former Republican senator from Michigan who recently stepped down as energy secretary, Spencer Abraham.
Most of those named either declined to comment or could not be reached.
Mr. Cannistraro confirmed that he has been subpoenaed to testify as a witness for the prosecution in the case, but he declined further comment.
Mr. Frank said in an interview he was confident he had never spoken with Mr. Al-Arian. "I certainly never talked to him. I'd remember that," the congressman said. "I've never heard of this guy before, to my knowledge."
Mr. Frank said his staff had searched his files for any correspondence from Mr. Al-Arian and found nothing.
In the late 1990s and the early years of this decade, Mr. Al-Arian, a Kuwaiti-born naturalized American, was politically active on behalf of Palestinian Arab and Arab-American causes. He was also secretly under regular court-ordered surveillance as a suspected terrorist. During that time, Mr. Al-Arian led a campaign against the use of classified evidence in deportation proceedings, such as one involving his brother, Mazen Al-Najjar.
That campaign, which drew support from civil libertarians on the left and the right, coincided with a determined attempt by Republicans to court Arab-American voters. The overlap of these two efforts helped Mr. Al-Arian win audiences with prominent political figures.
In the waning days of the 2000 presidential race, Mr. Bush unexpectedly embraced legislation that would have prohibited the government from using so-called secret evidence in deportation cases, unless officials were willing to share at least a summary of that evidence with the person facing expulsion from America.
"Bush rode in to appeal to Muslims," Mr. Emerson said. "There's no doubt that the Republican advisers who had met with the Islamic groups decided it was something they were going to endorse."
In March 2000, then-candidate George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, were photographed with Mr. Al-Arian and his family at a strawberry festival in Florida. The White House later said such photos are commonplace.
In June 2001, the Secret Service removed Mr. Al-Arian's son, Abdullah, from a meeting at the White House complex between Muslim leaders and one of Mr. Bush's top aides, Mr. Rove. Mr. Bush later wrote to Mr. Al-Arian's wife, Nahla, apologizing for her son's ejection.
In September 2001, after the terrorist attacks against America, Mr. Al-Arian had a highly publicized, heated interview with a Fox News television host, Bill O'Reilly. Soon thereafter, Mr. Al-Arian began receiving threats and was put on paid leave by the University of South Florida. The school, which had faced years of pressure to take action against the professor, fired him after he was indicted in February 2003.
A former terrorism prosecutor, Andrew McCarthy, called the elder Mr. Al-Arian's entree at the White House and on Capitol Hill "extremely curious." However, he said that as a legal matter, Mr. Al-Arian's political contact should be excluded from the trial as irrelevant.
"It wouldn't matter what President Bush or President Clinton thought," Mr. McCarthy said.
A defense motion to change the trial venue, currently set for Tampa, is expected to be filed later this week.
Tuesday May 3, 2005
By VICKIE CHACHERE
Associated Press Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Attorneys for a former college professor accused of raising money for a terrorist group are asking a judge to move his trial out of Florida, citing extensive news coverage and political campaign ads that featured his image.
Sami Al-Arian and three other men are to be tried on federal racketeering and conspiracy charges. They are accused of using an academic think tank and Palestinian charity founded by Al-Arian as a fundraising front for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
If convicted, they could face life sentences.
Nearly half of the 328 prospective jurors already have been dismissed because of their responses to initial questionnaires, Al-Arian's lawyers said in their request. Those jurors already had made up their mind that Al-Arian was guilty or had made prejudicial comments about Muslims and people of Arab descent.
"The pressure to convict him in this community would be tremendous," defense lawyers William Moffitt and Linda Moreno wrote in their request to U.S. District Judge James Moody.
The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on the change-of-venue request.
Al-Arian's attorneys have said that he was not a terrorist but an activist working within the system to educate Americans about the plight of Palestinians.
Al-Arian became a subject of debate in the fall U.S. Senate race between Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Betty Castor.
Castor, a former University of South Florida president, had suspended Al-Arian while the university investigated the connections and later allowed him to return to teaching. He was fired shortly after he was indicted in 2003.
Martinez, who won the Senate seat, criticized Castor's handling of the case, while she shot back with advertisements linking Al-Arian to prominent Republicans.
Jury selection for Al-Arian's trial is scheduled to begin May 16. Co-defendant Hatim Naji Fariz's attorney filed a similar request Monday, alleging that Fariz's right to a fair trial is being tainted by Al-Arian's notoriety.
Al-Arian cites politics, publicity, asks trial moved from Florida
TAMPA (AP)- Attorneys for a former professor facing federal charges he raised money for a Mideast terrorist group are asking a judge to move the trial out of Florida.
Citing extensive news coverage and a fall U.S. Senate campaign in which both candidates broadcast Sami Al-Arian's image repeatedly over severely weeks, his attorneys said in court filings that he cannot get a fair trial in Tampa.
Jury selection in the six-month trial is scheduled to begin May 16.
Attorneys William Moffitt and Linda Moreno said in their filing that the extent of prejudice is evident in that 155 of the 328 prospective jurors have already been dismissed after initial questionnaires found they had either already made up their mind Al-Arian was guilty or because they made prejudicial comments about Muslims and people of Arab descent.
"The pressure to convict him in this community would be tremendous," the attorneys said in their filing to U.S. District Judge James Moody.
Al-Arian and three other men are to go on trial on federal racketeering and conspiracy charges which could result in life sentences if they are convicted. Attorneys for the three other defendants - Sameeh Hammoudeh, Hatim Naji Fariz and Ghassan Zayed Ballut - are expected to file a similar motion.
The federal public defender's office, which represents Fariz, also filed a similar request Monday alleging that Fariz's right to a fair trial is being tainted by Al-Arian's notoriety.
The U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on the change of venue request.
The four men are accused of using an academic think tank and Palestinian charity founded by Al-Arian as a fund-raising front for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The terrorist group is believed linked to attacks in Israel which have claimed more than 100 lives.
Moffitt said in an interview Monday he has long suspected that Al-Arian would have difficulty finding a fair jury in Tampa, but said he was surprised by what he said was the level of vehemence expressed by some prospective jurors.
A Duke University professor who is an expert on juror bias submitted a report in support of Moffitt's motion saying while there may be prejudice against people from the Middle East in other communities, it is exacerbated in Tampa where potential jurors have been exposed to years of media reports about Al-Arian.
Moffitt said it has become clear that "people can't make distinctions about independent in Palestine and other events in the Middle East."
"What is happened is the sentiment toward the whole Middle East in the county has been affected by Sept. 11," Moffitt said. "There has been all kinds of statements made by the administration about who was responsible. Almost everybody who has been of Middle Eastern descent and of Arab descent have been accused of being responsible for Sept. 11."
The defense attorneys said the U.S. Senate race between Republican Mel Martinez and Democrat Betty Castor was particularly harmful in tainting the jury pool. Martinez won the hard-fought race in which both sides ran repeated television advertisements using Al-Arian and even potential witnesses in the case.
Castor had been the USF president at the time Al-Arian was first linked to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. She suspended him while the university investigated the connections and returned him to teaching, a position which he kept until he was fired shortly after he was indicted in 2003.
Martinez criticized Castor's handling of the case, while she shot back with advertisements linking Al-Arian to prominent Republicans - including a picture of President George Bush posing with Al-arian at a 2000 strawberry festival in Plant City.
Al-Arian's attorneys also focused stories, dating back to 1995, written by The Tampa Tribune about Al-Arian and said other news organizations have "saturated" the Tampa community with "prejudicial and inflammatory reporting about Dr. Al-Arian."
Janet Weaver, The Tampa Tribune's executive editor, said the newspaper's stories on Al-Arian were subjected to a rigorous review for accuracy and fairness before the articles were published and met those standards. Al-Arian also was given an opportunity to comment in each of the stories.