The Other Three

Lost in the glare of Sami Al-Arian are a trio of co-defendants

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click to enlarge Ballut - Hillsborough country sheriff's office
Hillsborough country sheriff's office

In the courtroom, they sit at tables next to and behind Sami Al-Arian, but it is the famous (or infamous) former University of South Florida professor and accused terrorism leader who garners all the headlines.

It is Al-Arian who has become the face of this trial, which started Monday, June 6 in Tampa federal court. It is Al-Arian's lawyers whom the press wants to interview. It is Al-Arian's name that is invoked when protesters take to Florida Avenue in front of the courthouse.

His three co-defendants - Ghassan Zayed Ballut, Sameeh Taha Hammoudeh and Hatim Naji Fariz - are largely anonymous. It is, after all, the "Sami Al-Arian Case." Except for one important fact: They face similarly serious charges as Al-Arian and similar sentences if found guilty - life in prison.

Together with Al-Arian, the trio is accused of multiple counts of conspiracy, racketeering, aiding a terrorist organization, money laundering, perjury and immigration fraud. Prosecutors are painting the four as a "communications center" for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a group that has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks and suicide bombings that have killed Israeli military and civilians alike. The indictment in the case refers to 11 attacks that killed 105 people, including two Americans.

The defense has raised issues of free speech and questioned whether prosecutors can tie the four men directly to terrorist bombings. They have been blocked, however, from raising issues relating to the Palestinian struggle and Israel's armed occupation of their country as a legal defense.

The three Palestinian men, and their lawyers, face the difficult task of both standing together with Al-Arian in declaring their innocence and hoping that the overwhelming bias against Al-Arian's name in Tampa Bay (thanks to a decade of aggressive news coverage of his alleged ties to terrorism) doesn't rub off on them.

Here is a look at the "other" three in the Al-Arian case:

Ghassan Zayed Ballut comes to court every day the same way that the public does, through the front door of the courthouse. Ballut is one of two defendants in the case who is out on bail.Ballut, 43, was arrested shortly before 6 a.m. on Feb. 20, 2003, at his suburban home in Tinley Park, southwest of Chicago, after being named in the indictment by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Ballut's wife, Hanan, told the Chicago Sun-Times that day, "He's innocent 100 percent, and we have nothing to hide. If you accuse him of taking care of his kids, going to work every day and working hard, then he's guilty."

Ballut is a naturalized U.S. citizen, having been born in the West Bank. He is described in news accounts as a businessman who had several run-ins with the justice system. The Sun-Times reported that he was convicted in 1993 of aggravated arson in connection with a South Side business he owned. Police said he torched the store for money. He owned various other businesses and properties (including one with his co-defendant Fariz), with his last reported business being Final Touch Cleaners.

He was described in his hometown papers in terms far from terrorism. Neighbors recalled him flying an American flag after the 9-11 attacks; his kids played basketball in the neighbor's driveway; the family owned a minivan; one neighbor called his "a normal family."

The indictment mentions Ballut in relatively few places but calls him a member of the PIJ and the Islamic Committee for Palestine (also called the Islamic Concern Project Inc.), a group founded by Al-Arian and alleged by prosecutors to be a front for terrorist fundraising. Al-Arian's supporters have said ICP held conferences on the plight of Palestinians and raised money for needy families in the occupied territories.

Ballut and his fellow co-defendant, Fariz, were founders of the Chicago-based American Muslim Care Network, a nonprofit organization from 1996-2003. Prosecutors say this nonprofit, as well as ICP and other organizations founded by Al-Arian, worked with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in an "enterprise" designed to facilitate and further terrorist acts against Israel.

The indictment says Ballut attended a meeting in Chicago in September 1991 where he was introduced as the ICP representative in that city. According to the indictment, "He said there was no logic but the logic of jihad - the way to success was clear, the rifles must be raised in one direction, the chest of the enemy."

In June 2002, Islamic Jihad struck again in Israel, killing 17 and wounding 45 in a suicide car bombing of a bus near Afula, Israel. On that same day, according to the indictment, Ballut spoke with Fariz by phone and asked him if he had heard about the attack. Ballut said it was "successful" and that it was a PIJ operation.

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