For nearly three years, family and friends of former USF professor Sami Al-Arian waited. Then on Tuesday, jurors acquitted Al-Arian on eight out of 17 counts in a federal terrorism-conspiracy case that has received national recognition in light of the Sept. 11 attacks and provisions of the Patriot Act.
On Wednesday, Al-Arian’s wife Nahla said he was still in good spirits when she visited him.
“He was the only one of us who wasn’t really surprised about the verdict,” Nahla said.
A jury found Al-Arian not guilty of conspiracy to murder and maim people abroad, money laundering and providing material support to a terrorist organization in a case that lasted nearly six months and 13 days of jury deliberations.
Jurors were deadlocked on nine other charges, which include conspiracy to commit racketeering, conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organization and conspiracy to make and receive contributions to terrorists.
His family remains in limbo while the prosecution is busy deciding whether to pursue a retrial for the remaining counts of the case and immigration officials look into his possible deportation.
For the time being, Al-Arian remains behind bars at the Orient Road Jail.
According to Steve Cole, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa, it may be weeks before the government decides to continue the case. In the meantime, Cole said prosecuting attorneys will be meeting with officers from the Department of Justice and counterterrorism units in Washington, D.C., to plan their next move.
Defense attorney William Moffitt said he was not prepared to discuss where the case may go or what motions his defense team might file.
“I imagine we’ll have some discussions with the government before decisions are made,” Moffitt said.
Al-Arian began working at USF in 1986 and was granted permanent residence status three years later. He was denied citizenship status in 1996 and was put on paid leave from USF in 2001. He was fired from the University under the direction of USF President Judy Genshaft in 2003 after being arrested by FBI agents. Two years later his case went to trial.
“(The government) has a detainer logged against Dr. Al-Arian,” Moffitt said. “And the idea would be if he was removed from criminal custody they would take custody of him, and then God only knows what they will do.”
According to a statement filed by Tasia Scolinos, the director of public affairs for the Department of Justice, “While (the Justice Department) respects the jury’s verdict, we stand by the evidence we presented in the court against Sami Al-Arian and his co-defendants. Discussions are ongoing as to whether the government will seek to retry defendants Al-Arian and Hatem Fariz on the outstanding charges.”
According to Cole, no meetings have been scheduled at the Tampa courthouse for the next few days.
But if the prosecution decides to drop the case, Al-Arian’s imprisonment may continue if and when immigration officials decide to seek his deportation.
“Once the determination is made, if the U.S. Attorney’s Office elects not to retry him, (the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency) will pick him up and place him in removal proceedings,” said Pamela McCullough, spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. “We have clear and convincing evidence he has ties to terrorist organizations.”
McCullough cited the testimony in the federal trial as evidence to be used in possible immigration proceedings. She said it showed Al-Arian communicated with a known terrorist organization and that he committed voter fraud when he voted illegally in a Hillsborough County election.
Al-Arian’s brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar was deported in August 2002 after being held in prison for nearly six years by the Justice Department on secret evidence. Al-Najjar helped found Al-Arian’s now-defunct World and Islamic Studies Enterprise, an institution prosecutors said was part of a cover for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The defense and a government witness maintained it was a scholarly institution.
However, one member of WISE, Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, would later emerge as the leader of the PIJ.
Defendants Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Ballut were cleared of all charges on Tuesday, and according to an article from the Tampa Tribune, Hammoudeh may be leaving the country voluntarily by the end of the month.
If Al-Arian is deported, his wife Nahla said she would follow her husband.
“I want to go wherever my husband goes,” she said. “If my husband leaves, I will leave with him, of course. I just want to live in peace with my kids and my parents. I hope the government does not hurt him.”