If political speech is a crime, then former USF professor Sami Al-Arian is guilty – and that is all he’s guilty of. That was the theme of his defense’s closing argument, which began on Tuesday at the Sam M. Gibbons Federal Courthouse in downtown Tampa.
Al-Arian’s lawyers, Linda Moreno and William Moffitt, said the government’s entire case is based on ideas and beliefs of Al-Arian and accused the prosecution of taking Al-Arian’s words out of context.
The defense portrayed their client as an intellectual and kind person who did nothing wrong but speak, write and publish criticism of Israel’s “harsh” occupation of Palestine.
“That is un-American,” Moreno said. “This is not a criminal case. It’s a political case.”
Al-Arian and three co-defendants are accused of being involved with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a known terrorist group responsible for more than 100 deaths in the occupied territories. If convicted, the men could each face life in prison.
Prosecutor Cherie Krigsman finished her closing argument midday, wrapping it up by telling
the jury this case “is not about the First Amendment.”
“It doesn’t provide a shield,” she said. “Conspiring doesn’t operate by pantomime or telepathy – it’s plain old crime.”
Moffitt disagreed, stating that he was “confronted by the First Amendment over and over again” during the case.
“He chose to speak up,” Moffitt said, referring to Al-Arian’s spoken opposition of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. “We wouldn’t be here if he didn’t.”
According to the prosecution, Al-Arian, Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Ballut and Hatem Fariz used an academic research organization, a charity and a school in the Tampa area as the North American bases of the PIJ while knowingly funding suicide bombings in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The defense argued the opposite, stating the defendants contributed only to the charitable branches of the PIJ. Moreno told the jury that there is no evidence proving Al-Arian’s involvement with the violent wing of the PIJ and that the government has the “burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Sami Al-Arian furthered the unlawful aspects of the (PIJ).”
The prosecution has only established indirect connections between Al-Arian and the PIJ’s suicide bombings and has not accused him or the other three defendants of murder.
“When you run with a pack as lethal as the PIJ, it doesn’t matter if you run with the rear guard or the vanguard – you’re in,” Krigsman said.
Al-Arian, 47, taught computer science at USF for 17 years before he was fired following his indictment in 2003, which came after a two-year FBI investigation. He’s been in the government’s custody ever since.
On Monday, Krigsman likened Al-Arian to a Mafia crime boss and said he was “a professor by day and a terrorist by night.” She continued on Tuesday with the same tone, calling the defendants “dedicated, committed terrorists.”
Al-Arian’s defense will finish its closing argument today. Then the lawyers of the other three defendants will present their closing arguments and the case will be given to the jury probably late this week or early next week.