TAMPA, Fla., Dec 6 (Reuters) – A federal jury on Tuesday cleared a former Florida professor of some terrorism-related charges but failed to reach a verdict on others in a case likely to be seen as a stiff blow to the U.S. government’s attempts to prosecute terrorism suspects.
The jury, delivering verdicts six months to the day after the trial started, acquitted Sami al-Arian of conspiracy to murder and maim, several counts of providing material support to a terrorist group and obstruction of justice.
But it deadlocked on nine other counts, including some of the most serious. Al-Arian, who has been in custody since his arrest nearly three years ago, will remain in jail because he could be retried.
The verdicts nonetheless heartened some two dozen al-Arian supporters who cheered and hugged each other outside the Tampa, Florida, courthouse. “I thank the jury so much. My heart is about to stop. I am so happy,” said al-Arian’s wife, Nahla.
Al-Arian, along with three co-defendants, was accused of raising money and providing support for Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian group the United States designated as a terrorist organization in 1997.
The jury failed to reach a decision on some of the key counts against al-Arian, including racketeering conspiracy, money laundering, conspiracy to provide material support, and conspiracy to make and receive contributions of funds, goods or services to terrorists.
Co-defendants Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Ballut were cleared of all counts against them, while Hatem Fariz was acquitted of some charges. The men could have faced life in prison if convicted of all the charges.
“While we respect the jury’s verdict, we stand by the evidence we presented in court against Sami al-Arian and his co-defendants,” said Tasia Scolinos, public affairs director for the U.S. Justice Department.
“Discussions are ongoing as to whether the government will seek to retry defendants al-Arian and Hatem Fariz on the outstanding charges.”
The case was considered a key test of the government’s surveillance powers, which were strengthened by passage of the Patriot Act. The prosecutors’ case was based mostly on thousands of hours of wiretapped telephone calls, intercepted e-mails and faxes and bank records gathered over a decade.
I’ll have more on this tomorrow, as will others, but for now let me point something out.
There are two equally horrible possibilities here. One is that Al-Arian, Ballut and Hammoudeh are exactly what Ashcroft’s justice department said they were, the US arm of Islamic Jihad. That they plotted the deaths of our brothers and sisters. That they used this country’s hospitality and decency and generosity against it in the most heinous of fashions. And that the government that accused them could not make its case competently enough, and so they are cleared.
The other is that the conspiracy theorist who whispers in my head at night about governement lies and coverups is right, and that Ballut and Hammoudeh, at the least, were innocent of crimes, and charged erroneously, and their lives were destroyed for nothing.
I was not in the courtroom. I cannot weigh the evidence. I know only what precious little any American knows, what little they tell us these days about those who they say will harm us: enough to be scared, not enough to be certain. I do not know if it is either, or both, or something else entirely, but that is what I am left with tonight, the cold lines of accusation in Ballut’s and Hammoudeh’s indictments, the painstaking detail in which investigators laid out their crimes. But I do know this: So much of what this administration has told us is a lie. WMDs, Osama will be caught dead or alive, Saddam was behind 9/11, John Kerry is a liar, we don’t torture … I don’t know if there’s a wolf out there. I can’t hear above the cries.
And that’s honestly what frightens me most of all. Terrorism is real. Dangers to America are real. We should be scared of how much we are hated, we should be angry when we are attacked. And most of all we should be able to trust the leaders we look to, to tell us what to do, and to do what must be done. And I have no such trust anymore. None of us do.
I covered Ghassan Ballut’s arrest when it happened. He and I had spoken shortly after Sept. 11, when he was one of the leaders of a local mosque that had been vandalized and I was reporting on some of the vicious anti-Arab hate crimes happening in the Chicago area.
On that day four years ago, a group of Christians, Jews, Muslims and general neighborhood types had gathered at Ballut’s mosque, to hold hands in a protective circle of prayer and support, a symbol to the people who would stigmatize all Muslims for the crimes of some that such vicious intolerance would not be welcome here.
Did Ballut merit that trust, or betray it?
I have no way of knowing. We spoke briefly, he was cordial, I was rushing to meet a deadline. Now I watch as local news tonight leads with the weather. It’s cold in Chicago in December. The moon is a sliver in the sky.
Acquittal does not mean innocence. Accusation does not mean guilt. Juries may be wrong, governments corrupt. In these times of secret evidence, we’re left to trust our safety to those who prove themselves each day more untrustworthy, and for that, I have no words.