Former Professor Pleads Guilty to Terrorist Charge
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
After more than a decade, the case of Sammi al-Arian is finally drawing to a close. Yesterday, the former University of South Florida engineering professor pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to provide services to a terrorist group. That is far from the government's original accusation that he was the leader of the American branch of the Palestinian group, Islamic Jihad.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO reporting:
The Sammi al-Arian trial was the centerpiece of the Bush administration's prosecution of terrorism in the U.S. The only problem was it didn't go the government's way. When the trial concluded last December, after six months and dozens of witnesses, a jury acquitted al-Arian on eight of the charges against him. They deadlocked on the remaining nine.
Yesterday, the Justice Department announced a deal. Al-Arian pleaded guilty to one count. He'll receive a prison sentence slightly longer than the time he's already served. And then he'll leave the U.S. Ahmed Bedier is a spokesman for the Council of American Islamic Relations in Tampa, where the trial took place. He says al-Arian mainly agreed to the deal for his family.
Mr. AHMED BEDIER (Spokesman, Council of American Islamic Relations): They suffered a great deal. They were deteriorating psychologically and financially. And he's the main breadwinner. And he's got two very young children that are growing up without a father.
SHAPIRO: Bedier says growing court costs were another concern. The Justice Department portrayed the plea deal as a victory. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said in statement, Sammi al-Arian has already spent significant time behind bars, and will now lose the right to live in a country he calls home, as a result of his confessed criminal conduct on behalf of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Professor JONATHAN TURLEY (Attorney, George Washington Law School): There's a lot of people, I must say, that are snickering at this.
SHAPIRO: Jonathan Turley is a George Washington Law School professor, who's represented defendants in terrorism cases.
Professor TURLEY: As a criminal defense attorney, I should wish that one of my clients would be so punished. The fact is that al-Arian would likely have to have left the country. He was unlikely to stay in the country. And what the government is doing is saying we insist upon you going off and starting your lucrative speaking career abroad.
SHAPIRO: Former federal prosecutor Josh Berman says the government was only able to get this much out of al-Arian, because the jury deadlocked on a number of counts.
Mr. JOSHUA BERMAN (Former Federal Prosecutor): The government had leverage and they took advantage of that leverage. What the government said was look, we can put you away for much longer. Do you want to serve the time you've already served and then be deported? Or do you want to spend a lot longer time in jail?
SHAPIRO: Georgetown Law Professor David Cole says that's not the kind of action you take with someone who's a serious terrorist.
Professor DAVID COLE (Attorney, Georgetown University Law Center): That's the kind of action you take when you want to save face, after you've failed.
SHAPIRO: Cole has represented terrorism defendants in other cases.
Professor COLE: If you were really a terrorist, I don't think the government would be happy sending him out of the country, where we can't keep an eye on him, and where he can take further action against us. I think the very fact that the government was willing to let him go, indicates that the government basically realized that it didn't have a case.
SHAPIRO: The al-Arian family has not yet decided where they'll go when they leave the U.S.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News.