Naples Daily News
Al-Arian: Terrorist or victim of anti-Muslim bias?
Sunday, March 16, 2003
By RACHEL LA CORTE, Associated Press
Tampa — Sami Al-Arian is different things to different people.
To the U.S. government, he's a terrorist who sends money to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in support of suicide bombings against Israelis and used a Florida university as cover for bringing Jihad members into the United States.
To his friends, family and supporters, he's an academic with unpopular views who's a victim of anti-Muslim sentiment and an overzealous government.
Now, Al-Arian, a Palestinian who was born in Kuwait, is in prison awaiting trial. He has lost his tenured job as a computer engineering professor at the University of South Florida and his $67,500 annual paycheck. He has lost about 15 pounds on a hunger strike, but drinks Carnation Instant Breakfast three times a day.
He was briefly treated at a hospital on March 1 after jailers found him looking sick. Officials say they aren't at the point where they'll need a court order to force feed Al-Arian, who takes medication for diabetes.
Al-Arian was one of four people arrested Feb. 20, 2003 in Tampa and Chicago. Four other men indicted are still being sought overseas. Al-Arian, Hatim Naji Fariz, part-time USF instructor Sameeh Hammoudeh, and Ghassan Zayed Ballut of Chicago have remained jailed since their arrest.
All four men are scheduled to appear at a bond hearing Thursday.
Supporters of Al-Arian are again expected to gather outside the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa, just as they did last month for Al-Arian's initial bond hearing, which was delayed.
"We're not saying he's innocent or guilty, but we question the timing of the arrests," said Ahmed Bedier, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It seems like everyone is coming at the Muslim community in America, looking for links to terrorism."
The eight defendants are charged with operating a racketeering enterprise since 1984. The charges include conspiracy within the United States to kill and maim persons abroad, conspiracy to provide material support and resources to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, conspiracy to violate emergency economic sanctions, engaging in various acts of interstate extortion, perjury, obstruction of justice and immigration fraud.
If convicted, they face life in prison.
For many in the Muslim community, they see the arrests as a double standard, citing the case of podiatrist Robert Goldstein, who was arrested in Tampa in August on charges of plotting to blow up an area mosque.
Bedier argued that Goldstein's detailed, written plan to attack mosques was as much terrorism as what Al-Arian has been accused of, yet Goldstein was not charged with terrorism. Goldstein's attorney says his client is mentally ill.
Goldstein is charged with possessing the explosives and destructive devices, and with attempting to blow up an Islamic center. No trial date has been set.
"If the government wants to fight the war on terrorism, it needs to be a just war," Bedier said. "You've got Al-Arian, who's pro-Palestinian. You've got Goldstein, who's pro-Israeli. Look at the difference in treatment."
Steve Cole, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney Office in Tampa, would not comment on the case.
The government has kept tabs on the balding, bespectacled professor for more than a decade.
The World and Islam Studies Enterprises think tank, co-founded at the university by Al-Arian, his brother-in-law and others, was raided in 1995 by the FBI amid concerns it was sheltering a nest of terrorists.
Another co-founder, former university instructor Ramadan Shallah, had left Florida in 1995 and turned up as the head of Islamic Jihad — he is one of the people named in the indictment. And federal officials said Al-Arian founded the think tank with help from the brother of an assassinated Islamic Jihad leader.
Al-Arian has said he knew the men only as academics and was shocked when they were later connected to terrorism. Al-Arian wrote that he considers himself a "prisoner of conscience" because of "the hysteria engulfing this country in the aftermath of the 9-11 tragedy, and because there are very powerful political groups which are thirsty for my blood."
His attorney, Nicholas Matassini, did not return several calls seeking comment.
Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Al-Arian appeared on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" and was quizzed about links to known terrorists and video tapes from the late 1980s in which he said "Death to Israel" in Arabic.
He has said he has not advocated violence against others and that his words were a statement against Israeli occupation. He has consistently denied any connection to terrorists.
The government argues Al-Arian used USF as a cover to bring Islamic Jihad members to the United States under the guise that they were attending academic conferences and raised money for the group.
"The people that are supporting Sami really don't care what the evidence is ... because everything is justified by the cause," said John Loftus, a former U.S. Justice Department attorney who sued Al-Arian last year as a private citizen, alleging much of what ultimately was in the indictment.
"This is not a freedom of speech case," said Loftus. "No one has the academic freedom to blow up school buses."