TAMPA — Sami Al-Arian looked tired and sullen. He slumped low in his seat and stared forward at the table in front of him, remaining mostly motionless. The only perceptible sound coming from him was the soft jingle of the chains on his legs.
All around him, the business of Judge Mark Pizzo’s federal courtroom hurried past. Al-Arian continued to sit quietly next to his criminal attorney, Nicholas Matassini, as Pizzo discussed the 120-page indictment that had led to the early morning arrest of Al-Arian and three others. Across the aisle, a fleet of government investigators and lawyers watched the result of their work unfold.
Al-Arian’s Thursday court appearance lasted less than half an hour and was the culmination of a shocking day. According to his wife, Nahla, and daughter Leena, it all began well before dawn at their Temple Terrace home.
Mrs. Al-Arian said at about 5:30 a.m., there was a knock on the door. She said once she opened the door, several officers came into the house. She described them as “polite.”
Moments later, Leena said the entire family awoke to see Al-Arian pressed against a wall and being taken into custody.
Al-Arian was moved to the federal courthouse in Tampa and held until his 2:30 p.m. hearing. In the interim, officials searched both his home and his office at the Islamic Academy of Florida near 56th Street. Around 11 a.m., the indictment was released.
About an hour later, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft made a statement about Al-Arian’s case. He said the Justice Department had indicted Al-Arian on racketeering and terrorist charges because of his association with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which operates in and around Israel. Ashcroft labeled Al-Arian as “the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”
“Palestinian Islamic Jihad is one of the most violent terrorist organizations in the world,” Ashcroft said.
Ashcroft said Al-Arian has been actively funding terrorist attacks in Israel. He said those attacks resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people, including two Americans.
“Our message to them and the others is clear: We make no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance, manage or supervise terrorist organizations,” Ashcroft said. “We will bring justice to the full network of terror.”
Al-Arian was charged along with seven other defendants. Four, including former USF adjunct and reputed worldwide head of PIJ Ramadan Shallah, are currently not in the United States. One man, Ghassan Ballut, was arrested in Chicago and will reportedly be extradited to Florida. USF graduate student and Arabic language instructor Sameeh Hammoudeh and Hatim Fariz were also arrested in Tampa.
During the court proceeding, Pizzo read the defendants their Miranda Rights and listed the charges against them. Between the eight men, there are 50 counts.
The two main charges are the conspiracy to commit racketeering and conspiracy to murder or maim outside of the United States. They bring with them possible life sentences.
Al-Arian is accused in the indictment of providing money to the PIJ, including money he sent to the families of known terrorists. Included were $120-a-month salaries provided to 400 families of “martyred” terrorists.
“In his capacity as leader in the PIJ, he directed the audit of all monies and property of the PIJ throughout the world and was the leader of the PIJ in the United States,” the indictment says.
The indictment also discusses Al-Arian’s role at USF. It paints the university as an unknowing ally to terrorist activities.
“The defendants and PIJ utilized the University of South Florida … as an institution where some of their members could receive cover as teachers or students,” the indictment says. “Additionally, USF was utilized by the PIJ as the instrumentality through which the co-conspirators could bring other PIJ members and associates into the United States under the guise of academic freedom.”
The indictment lists some of the evidence that led to the charges. Many involve phone conversations during which PIJ funds were discussed. In one conversation, the indictment said that Al-Arian “sarcastically” teased a fellow PIJ member because he “seemed upset or sad” about a suicide bombing in Israel. In another phone call, Al-Arian discussed “preparations” made in case he was arrested.
The evidence indicates that investigators have had Al-Arian under surveillance since about 1994.
Following Pizzo’s summary of the indictment, Assistant United States Attorney Walter Furr, who is deputy chief for the organized crime division, said the prosecution was ready to move forward and discuss detaining Al-Arian until the trial. Furr said he expected a trial to last between six months and a year.Matassini requested a continuance.
“(I) received a copy of this fiction called an indictment (a few hours ago), and I haven’t had time to go through it yet,” Matassini said to Pizzo.
Pizzo granted the continuance. A hearing was scheduled to determine bail Tuesday at 9 a.m. Al-Arian was returned to a U.S. Marshall and will remain in custody until that time.
Following the proceeding, Matassini gave a brief statement on behalf of Al-Arian. He said Al-Arian considers himself a “political prisoner.”
“He strongly believes it is his right to support the people in Palestine without the fear of persecution,” Matassini said.
Matassini said Al-Arian, in protest of his arrest, has decided to fast. He said Al-Arian will accept no food, water or medication.
Mrs. Al-Arian said her husband takes medicine for diabetes.
Mrs. Al-Arian and Leena placed blame on the Patriot Act, a post-Sept. 11 law increasing the powers of both domestic law enforcement and intelligence to carry out investigations in hopes of ending terrorism. Critics have said the new powers infringe on Constitutional rights, and allow agencies to operate with few restrictions.
“If it were not for the Patriot Act, we would not be here,” Mrs. Al-Arian said.
“The fact that you don’t need evidence to jail someone (is wrong),” Leena added.
Al-Arian was placed on paid leave by USF in September 2001 after a controversial appearance on The O’Reilly Factor television show. Bill O’Reilly, host of the show, insinuated he was a terrorist and asked Al-Arian about his relationships with known terrorists.
On his show Thursday, O’Reilly, often criticized for his egotism, took credit for breaking the Al-Arian story, and commented on those who were unhappy when he interviewed the professor.
“It’s good to be right,” O’Reilly said.
O’Reilly also has called USF “Terrorist U.” The USF administration has, since it placed Al-Arian on paid leave, received criticism of a different kind. The American Association of University Professors has accused the university of not respecting Al-Arian’s right to academic freedom and due process. The group has threatened to censure USF and could vote on such a proposal at its June meeting.
On Thursday, Ruth Flower, director for the office of public policy and communications at the AAUP, said a formal statement would probably not be released by the AAUP. She said, however, that Al-Arian’s arrest represents a second case and does not affect the investigation of USF.
“Our interest is in due process on campus,” Flower said. “We’re interested in the actions of the USF administration … There were no charges and no indictments at the time we began our investigation.”
Features Editor Stefanie Green contributed to this report