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Florida clears professor on jihad charges

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Florida jury clears professor on some Jihad charges
Tue Dec 6, 2005 7:24 PM ET

By Robert Green

TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - A federal jury on Tuesday cleared a former Florida professor of some terrorism-related charges but failed to reach a verdict on others in a case likely to be seen as a stiff blow to the U.S. government's attempts to prosecute terrorism suspects.

The jury, delivering verdicts six months to the day after the trial started, acquitted Sami al-Arian of conspiracy to murder and maim, several counts of providing material support to a terrorist group and obstruction of justice.

But it deadlocked on nine other counts, including some of the most serious. Al-Arian, who has been in custody since his arrest nearly three years ago, will remain in jail because he could be retried.

The verdicts nonetheless heartened some two dozen al-Arian supporters who cheered and hugged each other outside the Tampa, Florida, courthouse. "I thank the jury so much. My heart is about to stop. I am so happy," said al-Arian's wife, Nahla.

Al-Arian, along with three co-defendants, was accused of raising money and providing support for Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian group the United States designated as a terrorist organization in 1997.

The U.S. government blames Islamic Jihad for killing more than 100 people in Israel, including three Americans.

The case was one of Washington's most prominent anti-terrorism prosecutions since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

When al-Arian was arrested in 2003, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft hailed the case as a triumph of the Patriot Act, an anti-terrorism measure enacted after the attacks.

The jury failed to reach a decision on some of the key counts against al-Arian, including racketeering conspiracy, money laundering, conspiracy to provide material support, and conspiracy to make and receive contributions of funds, goods or services to terrorists.

Co-defendants Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Ballut were cleared of all counts against them, while Hatem Fariz was acquitted of some charges. The men could have faced life in prison if convicted of all the charges.

"While we respect the jury's verdict, we stand by the evidence we presented in court against Sami al-Arian and his co-defendants," said Tasia Scolinos, public affairs director for the U.S. Justice Department.

"Discussions are ongoing as to whether the government will seek to retry defendants al-Arian and Hatem Fariz on the outstanding charges."

The case was considered a key test of the government's surveillance powers, which were strengthened by passage of the Patriot Act. The prosecutors' case was based mostly on thousands of hours of wiretapped telephone calls, intercepted e-mails and faxes and bank records gathered over a decade.

When the defendants were arrested, Ashcroft said al-Arian, then a computer sciences professor at the University of South Florida, was Islamic Jihad's North American leader. The defendants denied the charges and said any money they sent to the group was for charitable activities.

A U.S. resident, al-Arian was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents. He was one of the founders of a think tank, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, and a charity, the Islamic Committee for Palestine, formed in the 1990s to support an independent Palestinian state.

Al-Arian said he was being persecuted for his beliefs.

There were over 70 witnesses called in the trial, which began June 6. None of the defendants testified in his own defense and Al-Arian and Ballut did not call any witnesses.

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