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Al-Arian at least a year from trial

It is a sobering realization for prosecutors, defense attorneys and defendants alike. It could be years before a jury returns a verdict in the case of Sami Al-Arian, accused North American head of the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Federal Judge Thomas McCoun III presided over the case’s arraignment hearing Tuesday. During the hearing, the judge discussed with attorneys the schedule for discovery, which is the period when prosecution evidence is disclosed to and reviewed by the defense. McCoun said discovery alone in the case will take “a minimum of a year.”

Prosecutor Walter Furr laid out in detail the sobering magnitude of the evidence in the case. According to Furr, 152 three-month wiretaps were executed against the defendants. From those, the government has produced more than 1,000 reels of tape, each containing multiple conversations, and a number of CDs.

Complicating the large volume of conversations is the language barrier. Furr said “99 percent” of the tapes are in Arabic and some records are in Hebrew.

Furr said the government also seized 30 computers, each of which must be searched.

“I cannot begin to tell you how long that will take,” Furr said.

Furr and McCoun agreed that it will take three weeks just to produce an index of all of the evidence. McCoun set May 1 for a status hearing in the case.

During the arraignment, defendants Ghassan Ballut, Hatim Fariz and Sameeh Hammoudeh all entered pleas of not guilty. Al-Arian’s arraignment was rescheduled for the first week of April because his attorney, Nicholas Matassini, is currently unsure whether Al-Arian will be financially able to retain his services.

Before and after the relatively brief arraignment, Judge Mark Pizzo presided over the fourth day of Al-Arian’s marathon bail hearing.

Matassini spent the day parading eight character witnesses through the courtroom. One witness, Libyan-born Aly Abuzakkouk, said he attended three of Al-Arian’s Islam Concern Project conferences, which the government alleges were fronts for terrorist fundraising. Abuzakkouk said there was no talk of PIJ at ICP conferences, and that they are “mostly intellectual meetings of the mind.” He said most of the fundraising was used to defray costs of the gathering, and sent to aid orphans and widows.

Several of the witnesses described Al-Arian as an excellent fund-raiser and lobbyist. An Islamic theologian said that Muslims are required to give 2.5 percent of their income a year to help the needy. This, Matassini asserts, is why Al-Arian sent money overseas.

Matassini pointed out that Al-Arian visited the White House and had Justice Department security clearance as late as 2001, seven years after some of the most damaging wire taps were recorded.

Matassini also argued that any money contributed to PIJ before 1997 does not constitute an illegal action. It was not until that year that the group was designated a terrorist organization. ICP and World and Islam Enterprise, Inc., an alleged PIJ front organization once associated with USF, were both defunct well before 1997.

“We don’t agree he (raised money for PIJ) before (1997),” Matassini said. “But if he did, it was perfectly legal.”

Matassini said Al-Arian’s brother-in-law Mazen Al-Najjar, who is listed in the indictment as a co-conspirator, was released by a federal judge who was allowed to see the infamous “secret evidence” that allegedly tied him to PIJ. Al-Najjar was held for years by the government, which continually cited the secret evidence. Matassini argued that the reason the judge acted in that way was because there was no solid evidence.

Furr said the reason the judge released Al-Najjar was because he did not have the information that now appears in the indictment. He said the secret evidence used to hold Al-Najjar was “miniscule or next to nothing.”

Furr again asserted that Al-Arian is one of the leading members of PIJ.

“He’s one of the big guys, the real big guys,” Furr said.

Pizzo asked Furr if Al-Arian Is a flight risk, which is one of the government’s arguments to keep him behind bars, why he has never run away before.

“I don’t think Mr. Al-Arian had any idea what was coming at him,” Furr said.

Matassini produced an affidavit toward the end of the day from an unnamed secretary who worked for WISE. The secretary swore that the fax machine and telephone in the office, from which many of the documents and wiretaps cited in the indictment have come, were locked in the office of Ramadan Shallah, former WISE member and current worldwide head of PIJ. The affidavit said Al-Arian was in the office once every six months.

Furr asked Matassini to provide him with the name of the anonymous source.

“Judge, if he’ll tell me who his informant is, maybe I’ll do that,” Matassini said.

Matassini insisted in his argument to Pizzo that Al-Arian would not flee should bail be set. He said $1.8 million has been offered in real estate and $1.5 million in signature bonds for Al-Arian’s release.

The real estate bonds have been offered by the Islamic Academy of Florida, the school Al-Arian started. The government prepared a brief arguing that should IAF post its land for bail, it will lose its tax-exempt status because the land will be used for personal gain.

None of that, however, may matter. Despite Pizzo’s ruling, an Immigration and Naturalization judge may keep Al-Arian in jail because of his immigration status.

Physically, Al-Arian is beginning to show more troubling signs of his 34-day hunger strike. In addition to his outwardly thin appearance, Al-Arian appeared weak and frail Tuesday. He walked slowly to and from his seat hunched at the waist and stumbling often. He also clutched at his back on several occasions while he walked.