After four weeks of preparation and jury selection by attorneys from both the defense and prosecution, the trial of former USF professor Sami Al-Arian is scheduled to begin today at the Federal Courthouse in Tampa.
Jurors will decide whether Al-Arian and co-defendants Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Zayed Ballut and Hatem Naji Fariz used an academic think tank to support and finance the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an organization responsible for violent terrorist acts.
According to The Tampa Tribune, the trial is expected to take jurors through the wreckage of at least 16 alleged Islamic Jihad attacks that killed more than 100 people, including three Americans, and wounded nearly 300, including at least five Americans. The attacks, listed in the Tribune, occurred between May 1989 and November 2002 and included nine bombings, four shootings and two stabbings. One
PIJ attacker commandeered a bus full of people and sent it tumbling down a 400-foot ravine.
The defense witness list for alleged co-conspirator Hammoudeh, a teaching assistant and doctoral student at USF, included four prominent members from USF faculty and administration.
Among the list of 26 witnesses were Provost Renu Khator, associate professor of Africana studies and anthropology Trevor Purcell, director of International Student and Scholar Services David Austell and associate professor of government and international affairs Mark Amen.
A list of witnesses for Al-Arian was not filed in the court docket by Sunday.
The prosecution’s list of witnesses also includes Austell, along with Abdelwahab Hechiche from the department of government and international affairs. Other witnesses with USF connections include former American Bar Association head William R. Smith, who was assigned under former USF President Betty Castor to investigate Al-Arian and the World Islam Studies Enterprise. In May of 1996, Smith concluded that the allegations tying Al-Arian to terrorist organizations were unfounded.
In an effort to enhance security at the trial, the U.S. Marshals Service has increased its safeguard measures.
According to the St. Petersburg Times, U.S. Marshals have categorized the trial as a “high threat” and have set up thick plastic barricades in the street around the courthouse. They have also installed additional metal detectors and increased the number of security officers on duty.
“This is not fair because it is going to instill fear in the jury and it will create a sense of insecurity and distress,” Al-Arian’s wife, Nahla Al-Arian, said. “This is not fair for the defendant, for my husband … The government is using the scare tactic here to achieve its goals in convicting my husband, which is not fair. If we have normal situations, if we have a normal atmosphere, of course we are confident that we can show he’s innocent.”
During the trial, which is expected to last more than six months, the prosecution intends to display graphic images of suicide bombings and other violent acts as evidence.
“The degree to which they (the prosecution) can logically connect the photograph to the defendant is one question that will be asked to determine whether or not it is going to be admitted,” said Charles H. Rose, a former intelligence officer and professor of law at Stetson University. “The other question that has to be asked is, ‘Is this photographic evidence so overwhelmingly inflammatory that its value to help the jury decide guilt or innocence is going to be overwhelmed by its inflammatory nature?’ Evidence can be excluded at trial for that reason.”
As the trial unfolds, jurors will also have to weigh evidence from witness testimony, letters and bank statements, as well as conversations from wire taps.
“I don’t think you’re going to see some co-conspirator come in and say, ‘Yeah we planned together to do x, y or z,'” said Rose. “I think it’s going to be a paper case.”
Evidence submitted in court as taped conversations will need to be translated into English, but the translated message may still be coded and may cause a host of other problems for jurors, Rose said.
“What we don’t know is if there is some secret code out there that the Islamic Jihad has talked to each other with, that the federal government has broken the code on,” Rose said.
If this is the case, then the government may bring in an intelligence analyst to discuss how they normally process and send that sort of information, Rose said. However, the difficulty with this tactic is that it may divulge the government’s intelligence strategies too openly.
“You can bet your bottom dollar that any Islamic fundamentalist group that is involved in terrorist activity will be watching this trial to see if they can gleam from the trial government procedures for surveillance,” Rose said. “And that’s why this case is so interesting. Because you’re trying to balance that national security implication of what you do or do not do from a prosecutorial perspective.”