The Summer of Sami

The image of Juror 32 — emotional, near tears, hugging a fellow juror as they fled media cameras and questions after essentially acquitting Sami Al-Arian — lingers even a week later.

The anonymous juror was mobbed as he left the courthouse, answering a few questions, saying briefly that he felt no pressure to change his vote, explaining that he just didn’t see the evidence of a crime. As Juror 32 broke into a short trot to put distance between himself and reporters, he yelped, “Help!”

Most folks who followed the lumbering trial — regardless of where they fell on the whole guilty or not-guilty thing — likewise could use some help now that it is finally over. Help in making sense of a six-month trial that failed to capture the public’s attention. Help in figuring out how our powerful government and its endless wiretaps and ample resources failed to elicit a single “guilty” verdict from the jury for any of the four defendants. Help in figuring out why we had to keep two Palestinian intellectuals in jail for nearly three years whose major crimes were, at worst, providing PR (and not bombs) for terrorists. Help in understanding why our government has been largely unable to prosecute high-profile court cases in its “War on Terrorism”.

These questions remain unanswered, just as the trial remains without its conclusion.

On the 13th day of deliberations, on the 13th floor of the federal courthouse in Tampa, and after six months of testimony, jurors rejected federal prosecutors’ assertion that former USF professor was a terrorist.

Although they deadlocked on three of four major charges against Al-Arian and co-defendant Hatem Fariz, jurors found them and two others not guilty of dozens of charges related to conspiracy, mail fraud, aiding terrorism and extortion.

Nine charges against Al-Arian remain alive. Although he and his co-defendants–Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Ballut and Hatem Fariz–won big last week, those pesky mistrial charges remain. Three of them are major allegations: that he was involved in a conspiracy, that he aided a designated terrorist organization, and that he was involved in extortion.

Now, the story will hang around like a winter head cold as the government decides whether to retry him and then (more than likely) bargains with him to gain his deportation.

In other words–sorry to be the bearer of bad news–you haven’t heard the last of this story.

But as we contemplate the unanswered, let’s take inventory of the overlooked:

Al-Arian was the clearly the target in this case, not the alleged “terror cell” that the government tried so hard to prove existed. The case against Ballut was laughable; at times you had to wonder how he felt sitting through a trial that he really wasn’t part of.

For Hammoudeh, the outcome is worse. He was cleared of all charges, but in its zeal to pressure Hammoudeh into testifying against Al-Arian, the government ginned up tax and immigrations charges before the terrorism trial against him and his wife. They pleaded guilty and agreed to be deported. So even though he was acquitted of terrorism, he’s headed to the West Bank.

Hammoudeh’s attorney, Stephen Bernstein, said the pressure and offers of a deal from the federal government were overwhelming for his client. “He was a way to get to Sami Al-Arian,” Bernstein said after the trial. What did the government offer Hammoudeh to flip? According to Bernstein, the feds said Hammoudeh “has the keys to the jail”.

* The mainstream media played out just about as expected. The Tampa Tribune’s coverage put the evidence against Al-Arian in the harshest light. The St. Petersburg Times was more questioning of the prosecution’s case.
In the end, the Times showed how it dominates the Tribune journalistically, putting 11 reporters on day-of-verdict coverage against six Tribune reporters. The Times, in fact, had the luxury of embedding a reporter, Vanessa Gezari, with the Al-Arian family as they awaited a verdict. Gezari wrote a very sympathetic account of the family’s ordeal before the trial; her contributions to the verdict story were similar in tone. But did that kind of intimacy limit the kinds of questions that could be asked? For instance, there was nothing from Al-Arian’s wife, Nahla, about a prosecutor’s brief statement early in the trail that she was an unindicted co-conspirator. Or from family members on what they thought of Dad’s pro-terrorism statements revealed on the wiretaps.

If the Times chose access over tough questions, it is hard to criticize; the plight of Nahla, standing up for her husband during his long imprisonment, is touching. Her tears and grateful comments outside the courtroom immediately after the verdict–“I’m grateful to the jury, the wonderful jury”–were among the most powerful scenes of the entire trial.

And to be fair, some of our readers feel the Planet’s John Sugg made the same choice for years, with his work on this case providing a strong voice for Al-Arian’s innocence long before other media, even if that access and insight sometimes came at the cost of presenting all sides of the story.

There was one media surprise: On the day after the verdict, the Times editorial uncharacteristically body-slammed Al-Arian–suggesting that he had abused this country’s hospitality and all but OK’ing his deportation–while the Tribune was fairly sedate in its assessment of the acquittal.

Protests that pre-trial publicity had hopelessly tainted the jury didn’t hold water, and those who argued that position beforehand were happy to switch afterward. For Ahmed Bedier, the head of the local Council on American-Islamic Relations, the victory disproved Bedier’s assertions pre-trial that the men could not receive a fair trial in Tampa due to overwhelmingly negative coverage and attitudes toward Muslims. Outside the federal courthouse after the verdicts were read, Bedier said, “We were proven wrong. It was a fair trial”.

Evidence that the prosecution and media persecution of Al-Arian was an Israeli operation from the get-go continues to mount. In reporting the verdict, the Jerusalem Post wrote, “Israel has played a major role in the prosecution, providing countless documents regarding the conduct of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad… .”

While not convicting him, the government’s case exposed Al-Arian as a liar and someone who on occasion privately lauded violence in the Middle East. He was deeply involved with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad leadership (although there is no evidence he worked with its military wing), even though he told reporters and the University of South Florida that he was not. He sponsored Ramadan Abdullah Shallah to come to this country and work in Tampa, working alongside the man who would become the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

While Al-Arian has plenty of explanations and excuses for this deception, the fact remains that Tampa Bay got to see a very different ex-professor than the one he claimed to be.

It’s also notable that while the Muslim community celebrates the acquittals and lauds the American justice system, none has embraced Al-Arian’s more incendiary comments on the wiretaps.

* The Al-Arian affair remains troubling and embarrassing for the University of South Florida, which suspended the computer sciences professor, investigated him and cleared him, only to fire him quickly after his indictment. After the verdict, the school again hastily issued a news release that said, “USF ended Sami Al-Arian’s employment three years ago, and we do not expect anything to change that.”

While some on the faculty feel outright used by Al-Arian, many faculty members remain distressed by the lack of due process that a tenured professor received in this case. The post-verdict statement didn’t do anything to assuage those feelings.

“The university administration screwed up again by putting out a press release that many faculty interpret as saying we don’t care about the outcome of the trial, he’s still fired,” said Roy Weatherford, the head of the United Faculty of Florida union chapter on campus. “What’s the point of saying that? It just fans the flames again. It makes it look as if they don’t care about due process.”

Al-Arian does not have a union grievance at this point (owing to legal and political wrangling over the union contract’s status when Florida did away with its Board of Regents in favor of trustees at each university). Weatherford said if Al-Arian were to attempt to file one now, the union would have to stand by him.

So the trial is over. But little has changed. Most folks–according to those unscientific newspaper surveys–believe Al-Arian was guilty anyway. The encouraging sign of fairness from the Al-Arian jury aside, there is still a bias against Muslims in our community. Another co-defendant still faces serious charges if the government wants to re-try the case. The government, for that matter, still appears fairly inept in terror trials.
And Sami Al-Arian still sits in a jail cell off Orient Road.

WAYNE GARCIA is the Tampa political editor of The Planet.