Al-Arian’s legal battles are far from finished

Glimmers of hope for Sami Al-Arian’s supporters are quickly fading.

As of last week, the former USF professor was fighting for his freedom on two fronts. He had submitted a petition for certiorari (a request to be heard) to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was also fighting his sentence for contempt, imposed on him by the Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The petition for certiorari refers to Al-Arian’s contention that Judge James Moody Jr. held him responsible for “acquitted conduct,” or accusations brought by prosecutors that Al-Arian was never found guilty of. According to the New York Sun, C. Peter Erlinder, an attorney for Al-Arian, “complained that, at sentencing … Moody called Al-Arian a liar, blamed him for statements made by a co-defendant, and said Al-Arian was guilty of crimes of violence.” Al-Arian wasn’t “found guilty” of anything at all, of course: He signed a plea agreement admitting he aided the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has been identified as a terrorist group.

But eight days ago, the Supreme Court denied Al-Arian’s petition to be heard.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals seems more ready to listen, however. After Al-Arian’s original sentencing, he refused to testify in a case regarding Muslim charities in Virginia. He was found in contempt of court for his refusal, prompting not only his two-month long hunger strike, but also an appeal to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which unanimously upheld the contempt order in March.

Al-Arian’s attorney then asked the court to reconsider its decision, only this time with every member of the 10-judge court present. Friday, the court of appeals denied Al-Arian’s request, but “immediately thereafter” canceled the denial.

Although no one seems to know why the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed its decision, the reversal could mean anything from a simple miscommunication to a sharply divided court of appeals.

The Supreme Court rejection was less mysterious. As surprising as it may be, there’s nothing blatantly unconstitutional in using acquitted conduct to determine sentencing. “(The judge) is free to use his sentiments as a judge, having heard the evidence as well as the jury, to impose a sentence,” said attorney Stephen Flatow.

Al-Arian’s legal troubles aren’t likely to end soon. Unless the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturns Al-Arian’s contempt charge, he will not be released for more than a year.

At which point, it’s possible – though in no way assured – that Al-Arian’s saga will finally be settled. But don’t count on it.