The Other Three

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

Share on Nextdoor
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.

By July of that year, Ballut was aware his banking records were being examined by federal investigators, and Fariz told him not to call him at any of his telephone numbers or let others call him because he was "concerned they were being watched."

Ballut is represented by Bruce Howie of St. Petersburg, who did not reply to requests for an interview for this story.

Sameeh Taha Hammoudeh shuffled into the federal courtroom three days before the Al-Arian trial was set to begin, his legs shackled by bright silver leg cuffs set off against the bright orange "Hillsborough County Jail" uniform he wore. By the end of the brief hearing on Friday, June 3, Hammoudeh and his wife, Nadia, had pleaded guilty to three counts each of conspiracy, tax fraud and lying to immigration officials.After his terrorism indictment, Hammoudeh found himself under the government microscope. The separate charges he and his wife faced resulted from owing just $8,072 in unpaid income taxes.

"If my clients' names were Smith or Jones we wouldn't be here today," said Steve Crawford, who represented Nadia Hammoudeh in the fraud case and who serves as backup counsel for her husband in the terrorism case. "I can't recall a case where the amount [owed] was so insignificant."

In the end, the Hammoudehs were sentenced to five years probation and agreed to forfeit many of their belongings. They also agreed to be deported at the conclusion of Hammoudeh's terrorism trial (should he be found not guilty).

They will take with them their six children - three of whom were born in the USA - including their oldest daughter, 18-year-old Weeam, a Florida International University student with board scores high enough to go to medical school. Weeam has attended jury selection in her father's other trial.

Crawford described the Hammoudehs as "Islamic missionaries" who came to Tampa to work with its Arabic community as teachers. He called them a loving and giving family, involved with charity and community upon settling in Temple Terrace.

Prosecutors paint Sameeh Hammoudeh, 45, as Al-Arian's "closest confidant" who worked at the Islamic Academy of Florida and was deeply involved in PIJ business matters. He came to this country in 1992 on a British passport, a native of Jordan and resident of Jerusalem, where he worked for the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem. He was encouraged by Al-Arian to come to USF as a student after speaking at an ICP conference. Professors described him in a 2003 St. Petersburg Times article as "extremely scholarly," "very, very bright" and "very gentlemanly and well-mannered." He earned a master's degree and Ph.D. and was hired as a teaching assistant in 1995.

In the meantime, prosecutors allege, Hammoudeh helped direct money to PIJ, and even at one point modified a computer file containing the wills of three Palestinian suicide bombers.

Sitting in the limelight behind Al-Arian has its pros and cons.

"Representing Sameeh Hammoudeh in this case with Sami Al-Arian as the lead defendant is a mixed blessing," Crawford said. "We know that a large portion of the government's evidence is going to focus on Mr. Al-Arian. So my client can look less guilty than some other defendants where the government has put on more evidence."

But at the same time, Crawford expects that prosecutors will try to tar all of the defendants with the same brush, as in the old saying, "you lay down with dogs and you get fleas. At some point, [prosecutor] Terry Zitek will make that argument. People truly might find you guilty by association."

Hatim Naji Fariz, 32, is the youngest of the Al-Arian co-defendants and the only one who is a native U.S. citizen. He was born in Puerto Rico before spending his formative years in the West Bank. He ended up in Chicago, where he and co-defendant Ballut eventually owned a property together and ran the American Muslim Care Network.His teen years sound like any American-dream story. He lettered in soccer and was a member of the computer club at William J. Bogan High School. He went off to Richard Daley City College and later got a bachelor's degree in computing from Northwestern University.

Fariz married a third-generation Chicagoan. They moved to Spring Hill in Citrus County in 2002 and have three young boys.

"He's had the benefit of being able to post bond … and spend the last couple of years with his family," said Kevin Beck, the assistant public defender who, along with colleagues Allison Guagliardo and Wadie Said, is representing Fariz. The indictment cost him his job as an office manager for a Spring Hill physician, but he has worked on and off since being charged with terrorism. Most recently, his full-time job has been preparing for his trial.

Prosecutors allege that Fariz was an enthusiastic member of PIJ and raised money for the organization. The indictment also details a wiretapped telephone conversation in which Fariz laughed about a suicide bombing that killed 17 people in Israel.

Beck said in an interview just before the trial started that the defense has found numerous errors in the government's account of those wiretaps, including cases where Fariz was not the person on the phone call or where the person he is talking to is misidentified. But he also acknowledges the difficulty of separating his client from the larger figure that is Al-Arian.

"It is my hope they can look at the four defendants separate and apart from each other," Beck said. "Will the jury draw him into the picture or will they be able to completely disassociate from … the facts of Dr. Al-Arian? Can [Fariz] get out of that limelight? Only time will tell."

[email protected]

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.