TAMPA — There was a rumored bomb threat that forced a building evacuation. There was an unexplained burst from the fire alarm. Protesters gathered outside and reportedly a spitting match ensued. Inside, a large crowd vied for limited seats.
And, in the midst of those oddities was the beginning of a long-awaited bail hearing for four accused terrorists.
The events that took place Thursday at the Sam Gibbons Federal Courthouse in Tampa can be described as nothing short of peculiar. And the result of all the strange events was a day riddled with delay.
The morning began with the kickoff of the bail hearing of Sami Al-Arian and co-defendants Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Ballut and Hatim Fariz. Al-Arian was led into the courtroom shortly before 9 a.m., giving audience members the first glimpse of his hunger-ravaged body since a Feb. 25 court appearance.
Al-Arian looked noticeably thinner and more pale. Although the rest of his body was covered by his prison clothes, his face told the story of his hunger strike. His skin was loose, and his cheekbones have begun to protrude.
Nahla, Al-Arian’s wife, said he has now lost 25 pounds since his Feb. 20 arrest. She said he continues to drink a nutrition shake, “so they won’t have to take him to the hospital.”
As Al-Arian, the accused North American head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, entered the courtroom Thursday, he smiled and waved at onlookers. He then spent much of the morning taking notes as government attorney Walter Furr asked Judge Mark Pizzo to keep the defendants in jail without bail.
Furr, during a near two-hour argument, said the defendants are a flight risk and that the serious nature of the crimes for which they are indicted may indicate that they would be dangerous if released.
Furr then proceeded to paint a picture of PIJ as a terrorist organization with the simple aim of destroying Israel and creating a Palestinian state. He suggested that its goals make it worse than fellow organizations Hamas and Hezbollah.
“(PIJ) is a pure terrorist organization,” Furr said. “There is no negotiation, unlike Hamas and Hezbollah. Those organizations have a portion of them that does some good.”
Furr described each of the defendants individually. He said Al-Arian has been involved in the highest levels of leadership in PIJ.
“Mr. Al-Arian is not just a political sympathizer, he is a manger for PIJ,” Furr said. “(It is like he is) inside the Board of Directors for a corporation … (He is) as powerful as any member of Islamic Jihad on the planet.”
Mrs. Al-Arian sat quietly through much of Furr’s presentation. But when the prosecutor described an early 20th century Islamic leader who appeared on a poster in a picture with one of the defendants as “the first modern terrorist,” she began to shake her head.
“This is fascism,” Mrs. Al-Arian said. “This is fascism. This is fascism.”
The court broke for lunch shortly after noon, and Pizzo said the hearing would begin again at 1:30 p.m. But shortly after 1 p.m., the building was ordered evacuated. Rumors spread that a bomb threat had been reported.
While officers cleared the building, a new problem became evident. More than 50 members of the media, family and friends had gathered for the Al-Arian hearing. Pizzo’s courtroom can only handle about 35 in the gallery, and guards were handing out tickets on a first come, first served basis.
The group wanting to get into the courtroom was asked to stand across the street from the courthouse until the building was deemed clear. Once that determination was made and the signal given, a mad sprint through traffic ensued, and people pushed through one another in order to get a ticket. Inside the courthouse, guards temporarily withheld tickets until pushing subsided.
The afternoon session got underway about 45 minutes late. Much of it was spent with character witnesses for Ballut and Hammoudeh. Nicholas Matassini, Al-Arian’s attorney, did not make any presentation Thursday. His work should begin today and continue Monday and Tuesday.
The eerie moment of the day’s proceedings occurred shortly after 2 p.m., when the courtroom began to settle in for the afternoon session. The fire alarm in the room briefly rang out with a piercing shriek then died quickly away. Pizzo gave it a quick look then continued the proceedings.
Downstairs and outside the courtroom, a hodgepodge of protesters gathered. Signs both for and against the war with Iraq intermingled with those protesting the court hearing. TBO.com reported that during the protest, an Al-Arian opponent spit into a supporter’s face. Eight police officers separated the group.
During the afternoon court session, lawyers began to discuss what collateral could be provided for the defendants’ bail. According to lawyers, the Islamic Academy of Florida near 56th Street and Fletcher Avenue has offered land for bail. The academy, which Al-Arian heads, is offering $662,000 net for Al-Arian’s bail. Also, about $350,000 for Al-Arian will also come from a strip mall he and Nahla own.
Proceedings in the Al-Arian bail hearing are expected to continue through at least Tuesday. According to Matassini, Al-Arian’s character witnesses will appear on that day.