Tampa, Florida; May 26, 2005 – The trial of four Middle Eastern men accused of aiding a terrorist group is about to begin in Florida, but some observers fear the jury pool may already be tainted by four years of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric in the news media and last yearâ€™s senate campaigns.
The lead defendant, former University of South Florida (USF) professor Sami Amin Al-Arian, has been in jail for more than two years awaiting trial. He stands accused of using a think tank as a front to raise funds for the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, which the US State Department declared a terrorist organization in 1995.
In addition, Al-Arian and his three co-defendants, Sameeh Hammoudeh, Hatim Fariz and Ghassan Ballut, are facing life in prison on a range of charges, including providing material support to a terrorist group, violating economic financial sanctions, extortion and immigration fraud.
Al-Arian started a research institute at USF called the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE) in 1991.The FBI immediately began investigating Al-Arian, along with the instituteâ€™s head, Ramadan Shallah, on suspicion that WISE was assisting terrorist organizations.
Since he moved to the US in 1975, the Kuwaiti-born Palestinian Al-Arian had been an outspoken advocate for a Palestinian state and an opponent of the US-aided Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. He spoke frequently at anti-war rallies and interfaith dialogs, especially after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, in an attempt to build bridges between Muslims and other Americans.
Many potential and eventual jurors expressed prejudice against Al-Arian, Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent.
The investigation of WISE came up empty, and Al-Arian returned to the University after being forced to take leave while the investigation was underway. But by their own admission, federal agents tapped Al-Arianâ€™s phones through much of the late 1990s.
Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Al-Arian appeared on a popular Fox News program, The Oâ€™Reilly Factor, where he debated conservative host Bill Oâ€™Reilly about the reasons for the attacks and spoke about the Palestiniansâ€™ right to self-determination. Following the show and prompting by Oâ€™Reilly, a flood of calls to the University resulted in Al-Arianâ€™s suspension. The administration fired him in February of 2003 â€“ a move that met with condemnation by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) as a violation of his rights to due process and academic freedom.
The â€˜Taintingâ€™ of a Jury Pool
As a result of the media hype surrounding Al-Arianâ€™s trial, his lawyers argued unsuccessfully that the case should be moved out of the Tampa Bay area because it would be impossible to find an unbiased jury.
A recent survey buttressed that claim. Of 400 Tampa Bay area residents polled by the Florida Survey Research Center at the University of Florida at Gainesville, 81 percent had heard about Sami Al-Arian, and an additional 15 percent had heard about the case but did not know Al-Arianâ€™s name.
Al-Arianâ€™s attorneys were warned that they were not allowed to question witnesses about the history of the Palestinian struggle for independence.
More than a third of the respondents said they had heard about Al-Arian during the 2004 Senate race. His case was used as point of attack in a substantial smear campaign against Betty Castor, the Democratic nominee and former USF president.
In the 2004 primary election, a group called the American Democracy Project slammed Castor for not kicking a "terrorist" off campus on her watch, since she had opted merely to suspend Al-Arian with pay while he was under investigation.
Castorâ€™s defense against the attacks further served to implicate Al-Arian in the public eye. She did not mention, in her own defense, that Al-Arian had not been found guilty and had not even stood trial. Instead, she tried to turn Al-Arianâ€™s case around against the GOP, pointing out that Al-Arian had appeared with President Bush at a public event, had been invited to the White House, and that "Something was wrong with intelligence that there was not an indictment for seven years after this situation first arose."
Castorâ€™s own messages against her general election opponent, Republican Mel Martinez, fed off the public fear of Al-Arian as a terrorist. TV spots accused Martinez, who had been Bushâ€™s Florida state campaign chairman in 2000, of allowing "suspected terrorist Sami Al-Arian to campaign with President Bush years after Al-Arian was suspended by Betty Castor." She used pictures of Al-Arian and Bush together at the Plant City Strawberry festival to incriminate Martinez.
Al-Arianâ€™s Attorney, William Moffit, describes the politiciansâ€™ allegations as a "disgrace."
"They need to be chastised for it," he told The NewStandard. "It is absolutely amazing to me that they can have that much disregard for the judicial processes of the United States."
Al-Arian, a prominent supporter of president Bush in 2000, served as an advisor to both the Clinton and Bush Jr. administrations and made many visits to the White House. His defense lawyers have said high-ranking government officials may be called to testify in the case.
Although the questioning of potential jurors was kept highly secure, and members of the press are barred from discussing any details of the six men and six women chosen to serve, journalists who were present at jury selection reported that many potential and eventual jurors expressed prejudice against Al-Arian, Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent. Yet presiding US District Judge James S. Moody reportedly allowed an average of just one minute per juror and seemed satisfied if potential jurors answered "yes" when asked "can you put your biases aside for this trial."
The U of F survey reinforces the notion that Al-Arian would very likely receive a less biased jury outside of Tampa. The same survey conducted in Miami found that only 24 percent of respondents had heard of Al-Arian; in Atlanta, one of the locations suggested by the defense team as a logical location for the trial, only 10 percent said they had heard him.
Other Irregularities Abound
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has already played a prominent role in the case. According to government attorneys, Israeli law enforcement and intelligence agencies are providing thousands of pages of documents to aid the prosecution.
The government also plans to bring witnesses from Israel who have been victims or had family members killed by terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Israeli daily Haâ€™aretz reports there will be over 100 Israelis flown into Florida, including investigators who took testimony at the sites of the attacks and personnel who collected body parts and dealt with the dead.
However, during pre-trial motions, Al-Arianâ€™s attorneys were warned that they were not allowed to question witnesses about the history of the Palestinian struggle for independence unless prosecutors did so first. Defense attorney Moffit argued that without context, the jury could never understand Al-Arianâ€™s motivations for his legal activism. Pleading with the judge, Moffit said that "trying to explain Dr. Al-Arian without some understanding of what is happening here is like attempting to explain Nelson Mandela without knowing what apartheid is about," reports the Associated Press.
The rights group Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has decried the treatment of Al-Arian and Hammoudeh in jail. Instead of being kept in a Tampa area holding facility, as is common for defendants awaiting trial, they were held at the maximum security Coleman Federal Penitentiary, 75 miles away from their families.
"Remember that these are pre-trial detainees," Nihad Awad, CAIRâ€™s national executive director, reminded the media in a May 2004 plea to have the two moved closer to Tampa. "They seem to have been treated as convicted criminals."
According to CAIR, prison officials were ordered to stop strip-searching Al-Arian and Hammoudeh last year. But, in what Bedier called "a deliberate act to break [Al-Arian] down," Al-Arian told family members that prison officials strip-searched him in front of other prisoners after a videoconference with the judge, even though Al-Arian had been under direct supervision the entire time since he had left his cell.
Al-Arianâ€™s wife, Nahla, says that officials had also denied her husband visits with his family and restricted his phone privileges to 15 minutes each month. "This is not the way they treat even convicted felons, who have the freedom to call every day," she said at a press conference last May.
A study by CAIR, which annually tracks anti-Muslim incidents, also found that violence against Muslims has been on the rise in Florida since 2001, mirroring a national trend. The highest number of incidences by type in 2004, according to CAIRâ€™s most recent report, was "discriminatory application of the law."
In Tampa, the organization is worried that the hype surrounding the trial will spark an increase in hate crimes against Muslims and Middle Easterners. "People are receiving their cues from the government," said Becky Steele of the central Florida ACLU. "And the message from the government that weâ€™re receiving is that Muslims are perceived as the enemy."