Lawyer paints picture of a hardworking, peaceful Al-Arian

For two hours Thursday, government prosecutor Walter Furr painted a picture of Sami Al-Arian as the evil, conniving North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Al-Arian’s defense attorney Nick Matassini spent Friday, and another hour Monday, arguing to the contrary.

With two character witnesses and an inches-thick stack of documents, Matassini spent Monday portraying Al-Arian as a hardworking, peaceful, local Islamic leader. He is trying to convince federal judge Mark Pizzo that bail should be set in the case.

Matassini provided Pizzo with copies of Al-Arian’s resume, as well as transcripts from speeches and copies of his published opinion pieces. One of those pieces, appearing just after the Sept. 11 attacks, was titled “Fighting for the right of dissent and due process.” Matassini also offered Pizzo several letters of support from local citizens.

Matassini continued to chip away at one of the strongest points in the government’s indictment. The indictment claims that Al-Arian was involved in the purchase of urea fertilizer, which can be used to make bombs.

Matassini produced a witness Friday, Tampa contractor Syed Laeq Ali, who said under oath that he mentioned to Al-Arian’s brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, that a business acquaintance was seeking to purchase urea for a legitimate purpose.

Matassini produced a sworn affidavit Monday further supporting his claim that the urea was sought for legitimate business purposes only. The affidavit, Matassini said, stated that the urea was sought for a buyer in India, and that the deal was never completed.

“At all times, it was a legitimate business deal,” Matassini said.

Both of Matassini’s character witnesses worked with Al-Arian in the context of his role as president in the school he started, the Islamic Academy of Florida. Pilar Saad, who taught at the school for nine years, said Al-Arian is active in the community and hardworking.

“I’ve never seen anyone work harder than this man,” Saad said. “He loves America and denounces the killing of innocent civilians (as happened on Sept. 11). This is an Islamic concept.”

Also called by Matassini was a teacher at Mendenhall Elementary in Tampa whose name was unclear. The witness said during her testimony that she worked with Al-Arian on a reading-for-kids program. She said Al-Arian attended a memorial at her Christian church following the Sept. 11 attacks.

“He disagrees with violence. He was as devastated and upset as the rest of us when the towers were bombed,” she said. “(He attended the memorial because) he wanted to emphasize this violence wasn’t part of his faith.”

Matassini told Pizzo he has six more character witnesses he will call Tuesday. Matassini said none could be called Monday because they are coming from out of town to testify and would not arrive until Monday night. That resulted in the short, 50-minute session Monday.

Tuesday marks the fourth day in Al-Arian’s marathon bail hearing. Most bail hearings are concluded in a matter of a few hours or less. Pizzo expressed his desire to conclude the proceedings as soon as possible.

The hearing will be in session today from 8:30 until noon. During that time, Matassini will present his witnesses and offer his final arguments. Furr said the defense will counter with an argument of less than half an hour. If the session runs on schedule, the bail hearing could be concluded Tuesday.

But the court will be forced to break for the day at noon. The reason is that Al-Arian’s arraignment is scheduled for 2 p.m. Presiding over that proceeding will be Judge Thomas McCoun III.