TAMPA — Sami Al-Arian needs $2 million to retain the services of defense attorney Nicholas Matassini throughout his trial on terrorism charges. As of Tuesday, Al-Arian had not raised enough money.
That, said federal judge Thomas McCoun III, was all he needed to know to move forward with Tuesday’s arraignment hearing. McCoun denied Al-Arian’s request for more time to raise defense funds, appointed public defenders and entered a plea of not guilty on Al-Arian’s behalf.
McCoun made his decision despite the pleas of Al-Arian, who argued the judge should grant him another two weeks to raise money. Al-Arian, who was originally scheduled to be arraigned two weeks ago with co-defendants Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Ballut and Hatim Fariz but was granted a continuance, said the nature of his incarceration prevented him from raising money. Therefore, Al-Arian said, he will be forced to work with court-appointed attorneys.
“Frankly, I’m not interested (in having) court-appointed counsel,” Al-Arian said.
Al-Arian said since being moved from the Orient Road Jail to the Coleman Federal Correctional Facility 60 miles north of Tampa, he has been allowed just one 15-minute phone call. That, he said, has “effectively halted” fund-raising attempts. With the time he has lost, Al-Arian said he would have been able to find the money for Matassini.
“I consider it as a punishment,” Al-Arian said. “I was cut off from the process.”
McCoun, however, said Al-Arian was given more than the normal amount of time following his Feb. 20 arrest to find money for representation. He said he wanted to move the case forward.
“We’re not going to turn this hearing into a suggestion (that the court has done too little),” McCoun said. “In fact, we’ve bent over backwards.”
McCoun said, as far as the court is concerned, Al-Arian’s argument for more time has “fallen on deaf ears.” He said, if Al-Arian raises the money, Matassini can file to appear as his lawyer at any time. But, for now, McCoun said he was forced to appoint attorneys.
McCoun appointed two men to represent Al-Arian. He told Al-Arian that they are two of the “best trial lawyers in the area.”
McCoun asked Frank Louderback, one of Al-Arian’s new attorneys, to respond on behalf of his client to the charges. Louderback said Al-Arian had instructed him to enter no plea. McCoun then entered a plea of not guilty on Al-Arian’s behalf.
During Tuesday’s proceeding, Al-Arian asked McCoun to transfer him from the Coleman facility, where he was moved March 28. He described the difficulties of his incarceration, which he called unconstitutional.
McCoun said he has already begun work on Al-Arian’s situation.
“What’s happened to you up to this point, I can’t do much about it,” McCoun said. “(But) things are in the works.”
Al-Arian’s attorneys indicated they will begin work on a motion for the transfer. But a hearing on that motion and a decision by McCoun may not be necessary.
Al-Arian still waits to hear a ruling on his bail hearing from Judge Mark Pizzo. The hearing concluded March 25, and a ruling could come at any time.
If Pizzo denies Al-Arian bail, the motion for his transfer will be filed and McCoun will act. If bail is granted and Al-Arian’s given release, he will likely be held by Homeland Security officials for deportation proceedings. Homeland Security officials were present in the courtroom Tuesday.
“If he gets bail today, he’s coming to us,” an official said to a court security officer.
But until Pizzo acts, Al-Arian’s incarceration will likely remain as it has been since he was moved to Coleman. Outside of the courthouse, Nahla, Al-Arian’s wife, described his current conditions.
“(He is) deprived of basic (human rights),” Mrs. Al-Arian said. “The conditions there are for animals.
“That place is not for Sami. It is for convicted criminals.”
As of right now, the next scheduled meeting in Al-Arian’s case is a May 1 status hearing. McCoun asked defense attorneys to prepare a basic budget for Al-Arian’s defense.