Waiting for freedom

Attorneys for Al-Arian, Fariz push for acquittal or settlement

Eleven years after he helped create the Council on American-Islam Relations (CAIR), Nihad Awad found himself in a line of spectators, supporters and reporters waiting to score one of the limited seats for a hearing in the Sami Al-Arian case and hoping to see Tampa's most famous Muslim set free.

"That's why we're coming today," Awad said when asked if he thought Judge James R. Moody Jr. would cut the former USF professor loose after three years in isolation in state prison and county jail.

He did not get his wish.

Al-Arian and his remaining co-defendant, Hatem Fariz, were acquitted of many of the terrorism-related charges against them in December, but each has a significant number of alleged crimes on which their jury deadlocked. Last week, Moody sat across the defense table from the lawyers left in the case and asked them when they were ready to go at it again.

The answer was: Not real soon.

Let's back up a second. Although the dozens of "not guilty" verdicts delivered by the jury were a resounding defeat for the government, it was not exactly a victory for Al-Arian (who remains jailed while the government decides whether to retry the case). Nor was it a triumph for Fariz, who is at least free on bond while awaiting the same decision, or Sameeh Hammoudeh, who was totally cleared of terrorism allegations yet sits in an immigration jail cell in Bradenton awaiting deportation to the Occupied Territories. Only co-defendant Ghassan Ballut walked away scot-free.

So the fate of Al-Arian and Fariz remains up in the air. Fariz's attorneys have filed two motions asking Moody to acquit him on the remaining charges, mainly because many of the larger allegations were dependent on specific charges on which he's already been cleared. The government has two weeks to respond before Moody can make any ruling.

At the hearing on Friday (Jan. 6), Moody finally got to ask prosecutors if they were planning on retrying the case.

"We haven't made a final decision on that," Assistant U.S. Attorney Terry Zitek told him. "We're inclined at this point to continue the proceedings."

After the hearing in downtown Tampa, attorneys for both Al-Arian and Fariz confirmed that "discussions" are underway to resolve the case. Neither Kevin Beck, assistant U.S. public defender for Fariz, nor William Moffitt, Al-Arian's high-powered Washington, D.C., attorney, would give details of those talks, but Beck said any settlement would not include his client cooperating with prosecutors in a case against Al-Arian.

Both men have something to trade prosecutors in return for the remaining charges being dropped. Al-Arian, already facing an immigration department request to keep him in jail should the charges be dismissed, could agree to deportation. Fariz could bargain with the outcome of a 10-count indictment he faces on food stamp fraud charges in Chicago. In September, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Fariz told a district judge there that he was willing to plead guilty to skimming $1.6 million in food stamp money but would not do so until after the Tampa case was resolved.

After the hearing, Zitek said, "I can't talk about anything like that."

Waiting in line for a courtroom pass, CAIR's Awad didn't have any of those legal maneuvers in mind. He wanted to talk about the ordeal that Al-Arian and his family have been through.

"I think he has suffered, and his family has suffered, more than enough," Awad said. "He was held without any serious evidence against him. How much more are we willing to spend on this case?"

Awad said the continuing saga remains on the minds of American Muslims.

"I could see the jubilation and the happiness on the people's faces (after the first round of verdicts)," he said. "Wherever I travel all over the country, I am asked about Sami Al-Arian's case. Our Muslim community is united. Let him go."

Before the verdicts, CAIR and other Muslim leaders were careful not to proclaim Al-Arian's innocence but instead demand a fair trial. In the aftermath, they're far bolder about the prosecutions (and, they maintain, persecutions) of American Muslims in post-9/11 terror trials.

"Most of these cases ... are done for political reasons," Awad said. "Why are we bringing the Middle East to America?"

Those actions, he added, have caused "a genuine sense of fear and intimidation."

Awad knows a little bit about the kind of intimidation and suspicion that was thrown at Al-Arian. For years, some on the far right and terrorism fighters like Steve Emerson have called CAIR a front for Middle East terror groups in America.

CAIR has repeatedly denied being involved with terrorism or participating in any criminal acts. Awad testified before Congress along those lines.

But that hasn't stopped critics.

In 2003 testimony before a Congressional subcommittee, the assistant director of Emerson's "The Investigative Project" attempted to tie CAIR to the Palestinian group Hamas. "The first manifestation of Hamas' presence in the United States was the creation of the Islamic Association for Palestine for North America (IAP) in 1981," Matthew Epstein testified. "Founded by Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook, IAP has served as a Hamas support organization in the United States by publishing Hamas communiqués, distributing Hamas recruitment videos and hosting conferences raising monetary and popular support for Hamas. Marzook has been listed by the Treasury Department as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist."

Replace IAP with Al-Arian's ICP (International Committee for Palestine) and Hamas with Islamic Jihad and you have the exact rap that Emerson's group tried to lay on Al-Arian.

It is clear that Awad has made some pro-Hamas statements that rival Al-Arian's infamous "Death to Israel" speech, but in the wake of the not guilty verdicts, will American Muslims get to speak their minds (not matter how much their speech is unpopular) without fear of arrest? They certainly have no reason to believe they can as long as Al-Arian is sitting in a cell east of Tampa.

Which brings us, in the end, to the name of this column. "Summer of Sami" was appropriate when Al-Arian's trial started in June 2005, a case that stretched through autumn and now into winter, rendering the name seasonally wrong. But if Moody doesn't grant the defense motion to thrown out the rest of the charges, and if prosecutors and defense counsel don't strike some kind of bargain, "Summer of Sami" will work for the retrial. Moody indicated that it could start right after another trial he has set for July, giving us Summer of Sami II.

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.