TAMPA, Fla. - A former college professor is set to enter Tampa's federal courthouse in shackles and handcuffs today, taking center stage in a highly anticipated trial.
Sami Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor, and three co-defendants will be in court to face terrorism charges in a case that began percolating a decade ago but took on new meaning after the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001. Five other co-defendants remain at large overseas.
Al-Arian and the others are charged with 53 counts, including racketeering, conspiracy to kill civilians, money laundering and giving material support to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group. The PIJ has claimed responsibility for at least 100 deaths in Israel, including several Americans. The group is led by former University of South Florida instructor Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, one of the defendants at large.
But the Al-Arian case has become about more than the people sitting at the defense table. Fueled by debate over civil liberties and homeland security, the case became a major issue in Florida's U.S. Senate race last year. And it has prompted concerns that such prosecutions inflame anti-Muslim sentiments.
In court documents and in statements after his arrest, Al-Arian, 47, argues that the government has sought to criminalize his speech and muzzle his unpopular political views. He calls himself a political prisoner.
His wife, Nahla, said in an interview Friday that the case only proves that civil liberties and academic freedom are under siege by an overzealous government after the Sept. 11 attacks. "Unfortunately, the government exploited the atmosphere of fear, hatred and suspicions," she said. "The great Constitution of this country is under attack."
But prosecutors are adamant that the indictment is not about Al-Arian's First Amendment rights to freedom of expression and association. In a trial expected to last at least six months, jurors will have to decide how far Al-Arian took his speech and private conversations, hours of which were secretly recorded by FBI intelligence units.
According to the government, two nonprofit groups he founded in Tampa - the Islamic Concern Project and the World Islam Studies Enterprise - were used by him and others to secretly fund suicide bombings and to provide cover for suspected or known terrorists who visited the United States in the 1990s. ICP, also known as the Islamic Committee for Palestine, and WISE were once affiliated with the University of South Florida and held annual scholarly conferences and fund-raisers.
It was at one of these gatherings in 1988 that Al-Arian was videotaped shouting, "Death to Israel!" In a 2002 interview with the St. Petersburg Times, he said that his quote was taken out of its cultural context and that he meant "death" to Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands.
Al-Arian, who has been held without bail since his arrest on Feb. 20, 2003, is a permanent U.S. resident. Born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents, he was raised and educated in Egypt and obtained advanced computer-engineering degrees at North Carolina State University and the University of South Florida. His application for U.S. citizenship is pending.
For much of the past 10 years, Al-Arian was suspected of being a terrorist sympathizer, but he was never charged with supporting terrorism. The suspicions were first aired in a series of articles by The Tampa Tribune in 1995 and picked up momentum through coverage of the government's detention in 1997 and subsequent deportation of Al-Arian's brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar.
As Al-Arian's trial nears, there is an uneasiness in Tampa Bay's Muslim community of about 40,000. Ahmed Bedier, director of communications in Florida for the Council on American Islamic Relations, said he recently met with law-enforcement agencies, fearing a possible backlash.
"We were concerned about how this trial is going to impact anti-Muslim sentiment and whether that's going to provoke individuals' anger and hate crimes against us," he said.
Bedier said while his national organization does not defend or condone Al-Arian or his co-defendants, it wants to ensure they are treated fairly.
"It's difficult for a Muslim to have a fair trial in America, especially when you play the terrorism card," he said. "It scares people even though this case has nothing to do with 9/11."
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.