Defense attorney William Moffitt in the trial of Sami Al-Arian concluded closing arguments on Wednesday, saying the former USF professor’s purpose and intent was non-violent and that the case was a First Amendment matter.
Moffitt did not entirely dispute his defendant’s ties to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), but said the organization was composed of both peaceful and military factions.
“The military wing of the PIJ is a small separate wing of the PIJ,” he said, “and the wing is autonomous from the political wing.”
From the onset of the five-month trial, prosecutors had referred to Al-Arian as one of the heads of the PIJ.
Prosecutors say Al-Arian and co-defendants Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Zayed Ballut and Hatem Naji Fariz used an academic think tank and a Palestinian charity, founded by Al-Arian, as fundraising fronts and covers for the PIJ, an organization which has been blamed for hundreds of deaths in Israel and the occupied territories.
Prosecutors built their case around thousands of minutes from taped phone conversations and hundreds of documents taken from the homes of the defendants and World Islamic Studies Enterprise (WISE), an organization Al-Arian founded.
Defendants face a 51-count indictment that includes operating a criminal enterprise and conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization. Five other men were indicted but have not been arrested because they are out of the country.
One of those five men is the PIJ leader Rhamadan Abdullah Shallah. Shallah taught at USF as an adjunct professor and worked alongside Al-Arian as former executive director of WISE.
On Tuesday, the prosecution reviewed faxes and phone conversations between Al-Arian and Shallah it thinks may implicate Al-Arian in channeling money that went to fund the PIJ.
Prosecutor Cherie Krigsman also played a phone conversation between Al-Arian and St. Petersburg Times reporter Jim Harper in which Al-Arian said he had never heard of Shallah.Moffitt explained Al-Arian lied to Harper because he was afraid his association with Shallah as an employee would tarnish WISE’s reputation as a scholarly institution.
While prosecutors maintain Al-Arian used WISE to produce terrorist propaganda, Moffitt reminded jurors Wednesday of testimony from former director of USF’s international affairs center Mark Orr, who said WISE was a scholarly institution.
“There was great academic value in what happened at WISE,” Moffitt said. “People from all political perspectives came to debate in front of people of their positions.”
While government prosecutors maintain the case is not about First Amendment issues, Moffitt said he believed the values of American society were in jeopardy.
“If I was denied the right to speak, to think, I would do everything I could to see that my people could be heard,” Moffitt said.
Outside the courtroom, after the defense concluded its closing arguments, Al-Arian’s wife Nahla said she complained about one juror who was known to be biased and was active in expressing his views to other jurors.
Defense attorney Stephen Bernstein also finished closing arguments for Hammoudeh, a former USF graduate student who also worked alongside Al-Arian.
Prosecutors say Hammoudeh was part of the “terrorist cell” operating out of Tampa and assisted Al-Arian in fundraising and transfers that went overseas to fund acts of terrorism.Bernstein said Hammoudeh was more involved with school and his thesis, and thus offset him from the alleged conspiracy with Al-Arian.
“There’s no evidence he joined in the conspiracy to murder and maim,” Bernstein said. “His words expressed the peace process, not terrorism.”
Lawyers for Ballut and Fariz will begin concluding arguments on Thursday, and the jury should deliberate sometime next week.