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So far, not guilty

Prosecutors in the Sami Al-Arian case were dealt a crushing blow on Tuesday as jurors in one of the country’s most high-profile terrorist cases acquitted former USF professor Sami Al-Arian and three co-defendants in connection with the violent acts of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).

After Judge James Moody read the verdict aloud, the former computer engineering professor cried. His attorney, Linda Moreno, hugged him and dozens of friends and former students rejoiced inside the overflow room after Moody read each count. Others were in tears.

The panel of 12 jurors found Al-Arian not guilty on eight of 17 counts in a federal indictment that was personally sought by former Attorney General John Ashcroft in the wake of Sept. 11 and the Patriot Act.

However, jurors were deadlocked on several conspiracy charges, including conspiracy to provide material support to terrorist groups. It will be up to the prosecution whether to retry Al-Arian on the remaining counts. If found guilty of the remaining charges, he may still face life in prison.

The expanded powers of the Patriot Act allowed for FBI investigations and thousands of wiretapped phone conversations to be used as evidence in the case against Al-Arian.

Prosecutors likened Al-Arian to HBO’s Tony Soprano as the head of a fund-raising cell for the PIJ operating out of Tampa.

They said he used USF and the now-defunct WISE institute – an Islamic think tank – as covers to fund violent acts committed by the PIJ.

Prosecutors took five months to present their entire case, bringing forth approximately 80 witnesses and hundreds of documents taken from the homes and offices of the defendants.

Emotions ran high in the middle of the trial when videos of a Bet Lid, Israel, bus bombing orchestrated by the PIJ were shown.

Prosecutors were unavailable for comment as the court recessed for the day.

But after five months of proceedings, the defense rested its case after calling no witnesses, saying the prosecution had not proven that Al-Arian did anything but express unpopular views about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and raised funds for legitimate charities.

“The jury decided that Dr. Al-Arian was not responsible for any of that violence,” Moreno said.

Outside the courtroom, friends and family cheered, occasionally erupting in short shouting bursts called zaghrootes. Others professed that justice had been served.

“We will be making motions against the possibility of a retrial,” Moreno said outside the courtroom. “The prosecution should take into account that not one guilty verdict in the 51 counts for all four defendants – really 200 counts – didn’t come back with a guilty verdict.

“The jury didn’t buy the overwhelming reaching innuendo. It was a political prosecution. Sami Al-Arian decided to speak out about unpopular beliefs and ideas on the part of the Palestinian people.”

For now, Al-Arian is being held at the Orient Road Jail in downtown Tampa. His wife, Nahla, had plans to meet with her husband Wednesday evening.

“This victory is not just for the family; this is for the American people,” Nahla said. “I will never forget all the things (the jury) did to defend my husband’s right to speak out.

“My husband is an outspoken Palestinian activist. He loved this country and believed in the system, and the system did not fail him.”

Stephen Bernstein, attorney for Sameeh Hammoudeh, said he was preparing to get his client out of jail as he left the courthouse. The remaining two defendants, Hatem Naji Fariz and Ghassan Zayed Ballut, previously posted bail.

“I think, after three years of waiting, this is an indication that the end is near and my father will be home soon,” Al-Arian’s daughter Leena said.