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American Muslim

Al-Arian case hit by jump in costs

Prosecutors say they likely will need another $400,000 to convert audio surveillance tapes to a digital format.

By GRAHAM BRINK, Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times
 May 30, 2003

TAMPA - The cost of the criminal case for former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian is rising quickly, according to statements made at a court hearing Thursday.

The latest potential expense: $400,000 or more to convert thousands of hours of audio surveillance tapes to a digital format to make them easier to handle, a process that prosecutors say could take eight months.

That would be in addition to a few thousand dollars for copying videotapes and buying scanning and computer equipment; about $50,000 a year proposed for a paralegal to help defense lawyers parse through reams of documents; and tens of thousands more for Arabic speakers to translate evidence.

Those costs are on top of the investigative time logged by the FBI and the prosecutors, and the running tally of hours for the court-appointed defense attorneys.

And the bill is far from complete, something U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas McCoun alluded to during the hearing.

"We haven't made much progress on the tapes," he said.

Federal agents arrested Al-Arian and three other men in February on charges that they supported, promoted and raised money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group responsible for more than 100 deaths.

Federal prosecutors say agents taped tens of thousands of telephone conversations over several years while surveilling Al-Arian and the other men. None of the tapes have been played in court.

Al-Arian and Sammeeh Hammoudeh are being held without bail at the Coleman Correctional Facility in Sumter County about 70 miles north of Tampa. The two other defendants are out on bail.

At Thursday's hearing, Al-Arian and Hammoudeh watched from the prison via video-conferencing equipment as the judge and the lawyers discussed a range of issues.

Al-Arian and his lawyers wanted to discuss the conditions at the prison, which they have complained are hampering their ability to put on a defense. Al-Arian has complained that he has limited access to the phone. His lawyers have said their visits to the prison are often delayed by guards or interrupted.

On Thursday, Al-Arian told the judge that even getting pencils to take notes as he examines the evidence is difficult. He said that a guard slammed a door, striking his hand. His lawyer said that happened in a dispute over pencils.

McCoun said he'd take care of the pencil problem, but reiterated that he had examined the complaints about prison conditions and stuck by his ruling from Wednesday not to move the defendants to a new location.

Frank Louderback, one of Al-Arian's attorneys, complained about the treatment after the hearing. "They are making it impossible for us to communicate adequately with our client," Louderback said.

Al-Arian's lawyers objected to how a government agent is often present when they view evidence from the case at a room in the FBI building in Tampa.

They also balked at the idea of using the video-conferencing equipment in lieu of going to the prison, saying they feared that prison employees or other government officials could be listening or recording their attorney/client conversations. The equipment also makes it difficult to examine documents or listen to tapes with Al-Arian present.

Jeff Brown, Al-Arian's other lawyer, said they will file more court documents objecting to the prison conditions. Brown raised the possibility of filing a motion to exclude large portions of the government's evidence on the grounds that they are not being given fair opportunity to represent their client. "These restrictions are keeping us from being lawyers," he said.