In 2005, Sami Al-Arian was planning to launch a fight against the controversial Patriot Act. But after a U.S. federal court ruled Thursday to delay the former USF professor’s trial until January 2005, Al-Arian will have to defend a 50-count indictment on terrorism charges instead.
Federal agents arrested Al-Arian on Feb. 20, with Attorney General John Ashcroft labeling Al-Arian as the “North American leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”
The former USF professor’s indictment is one of many criminal investigations that have resulted from the Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The act allows information sharing between law enforcement and intelligence agencies and gives the government broad powers in detaining and deporting those it deems terrorists.
Last year, Al-Arian vowed to fight against the act until its December 2005 expiration date, when the government is scheduled to vote on it again.
Instead, Al-Arian could spend that time in jail as U.S. District Judge James Moody denied Al-Arian’s request for a speedy trial by postponing the trial for 18 months.
The decision came when Al-Arian’s co-defendants said an extension was necessary in order to examine the volume of evidence being held against them.
The government is holding 21,000 hours of taped phone conversations along with 30 computer hard drives that officials say hold Al-Arian accountable to charges of racketeering and conspiracy to murder.
“I’m concerned that if we set a date before the time of physical possibility to review (evidence), then we’ll be shortchanging ourselves,” Moody said. “It is unreasonable to expect adequate preparation with the time limits under a speedy trial.”
Though court-appointed attorneys Frank Louderback and Jeff Brown said Al-Arian would reject any continuance, they find the government’s handling of evidence more troubling.
According to prosecutors, a substantial number of the taped phone calls are still classified. In the meantime, the government will continue to work so the remainder of the calls are declassified.
However, Moody said the government is requesting counsel to obtain security clearance before it is allowed access to further evidence in the case.
“It is not in our position to file a clearance because this (information) should be declassified,” Brown said. “My client doesn’t have the opportunity to get security clearance. I want to find out who’s making this decision.”
Members of the counsel will have 30 days to file for security clearance. Meanwhile, it could take the government 32 weeks to transfer recorded conversations into a proper format. In addition, co-defendants will have to hire a team of interpreters to translate the conversations from Arabic.
While the court waits to set a trial date, Moody said the counsel would need to start considering how to select a jury.
“I think it will be difficult to find a jury willing to sit there for six to 12 months,” Moody said.
Moody suggested mailing questionnaires to potential jurors and that the counsel meet within 60 days to submit and discuss questions.
Al-Arian refused to attend the hearing via videoconferencing set up at the Coleman Correctional Facility, 70 miles north of Tampa because his cellmate and co-defendant Sameeh Hammoudeh was not permitted to attend.