TAMPA — There was something different about Sami Al-Arian.
As he strolled into the federal courtroom Tuesday, legs bound with chains for his bail hearing, it was apparent that something had changed in Al-Arian since he sat at his first hearing Thursday, the day of his arrest on charges related to terrorism.
It wasn’t the fact that he had traded in his polo shirt, light jacket and slacks for prison issued sandals, orange pants and a blue, long sleeve button-down shirt with the words “Hillsborough County Jail” scrolled in black letters on the back. It also had nothing to do with the fact that, on the sixth day of his hunger strike and after, according to his wife Nahla, losing 10 pounds, Al-Arian’s face appeared thin and slightly stretched and his body substantially leaner.
The difference in Al-Arian was much more subtle, and not physical. Al-Arian walked to his chair looking forward at the gallery and wearing a smile. He chatted with attorney Nicholas Matassini throughout the hearing and, looking directly at Judge Mark Pizzo, put forward an air of confidence.
This was a stark contrast to the Al-Arian of five days before. On Thursday, an obviously shocked and sullen Al-Arian barely moved, let alone spoke, during his 30-minute hearing. His gaze never left the table in front of him, and he didn’t seem to acknowledge what was happening.
While Al-Arian’s attitude may have changed, the hearing was no different than Thursday’s. Matassini, with books and papers stacked dramatically in a 180-degree arch around him and a suitcase-sized briefcase on the floor, again argued that he needed a team and a few weeks to weed through the 120-page indictment. Only then, he said, will he be able to probably argue for bail in the face of evidence against Al-Arian on the charges of conspiracy to commit racketeering and murder in another country.
Matassini said Al-Arian wasn’t provided with the indictment until Friday, and he had yet to have time to assemble a team.
Lawyers for co-defendants Hatim Fariz and Sameeh Hammoudeh joined in the request for a continuance. Prosecutor Walter Furr made no objection.
Pizzo ruled that because of the complexity of the indictment, the defense would be awarded more time.
“This case is not the usual case,” Pizzo said. “(I want to) give (the defendants) the benefit of a full and fair hearing.”
Pizzo scheduled the bail hearing for March 24 at 9 a.m. Until that time, Al-Arian will remain behind bars.
Moments after the ruling, Al-Arian’s family left the quiet calm of the courtroom and walked out into the wild scene on the street outside of the courthouse. Leena, Al-Arian’s 17-year-old daughter, read a statement to the media and to supporters written by her father. The tone of the statement, which was addressed to “freedom loving people,” seemed defiant. If nothing else, it was another sign that Al-Arian, who seemed almost beaten Thursday, was back on the offensive.
“I am crucified today because of who I am,” the statement said. “I am a prisoner because of the hysteria engulfing the country following Sept. 11.”
In the statement, Al-Arian said he would rely on his religion to help him through.
“Someone may be in control of my body, but I am in control of my will,” he said.
The statement concluded with a recitation of revolutionary patriot Patrick Henry’s famous declaration to the British: “Give me liberty or give me death.”
After Leena read her statement, USF student and Al-Arian supporter Layelle Saad read a second statement from the professor that, in part, explained his reasoning behind the hunger strike.
“Why the hunger strike? To protest (my) unjust persecution,” Al-Arian said in the statement. “They stack a deck against me and say let’s play cards.”
Al-Arian said it would cost him $2 million to put up a meaningful defense in court. He said he will not be able to afford such a defense.
“(It’s like demanding) quarterbacks play with one hand tied behind their backs,” Al-Arian said. “Well, I ain’t playing.”
Mrs. Al-Arian said her husband was in good spirits. She said he is spiritually strong and is now relying heavily on his faith.
“I want him to be in good hands. I want him to be with me and my kids,” Mrs. Al-Arian said. “He feels what is happening to him has happened to other prophets in the past.”