Florida Terrorism Trial Winds Down
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In Tampa, a high-profile terrorism trial is nearing an end. Former University of South Florida professor, Sami Al-Arian, is being tried on federal charges that he conspired to assist the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The government says the terrorist group is responsible for more than 100 deaths. During this five-month trial, the government has called dozens of witnesses, but Al-Arian's lawyers have not called any. NPR's Phillip Davis reports.
PHILLIP DAVIS reporting:
Al-Arian was arrested in 2003 after federal investigators alleged that various Islamic think tanks and charities he had created at the University of South Florida were closely linked to Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Al-Arian wasn't accused of any actual terrorist acts. It wasn't necessary, said then Attorney General John Ashcroft, at the time of Al-Arian's arrest.
Attorney General JOHN ASHCROFT: We make no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks and those who knowingly finance, manage or supervise terrorist organizations.
DAVIS: Prosecutors have not been talking now that the trial is under way, saving their arguments for the courtroom. In closing arguments that began Monday, prosecutor Cherie Krigsman spent some 10 hours detailing to the jury what she said was a web of ties between Al-Arian and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. She showed for example how Al-Arian had sent $8,000 in support to the families of four Palestinian suicide bombers, and how Al-Arian worked closely in Florida with a man who would eventually become the secretary general of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Al-Arian was once a popular lecturer on Palestinian issues, but he didn't say a word during the trial and was not called to testify. Though that was part of the defense strategy, it's been difficult, said his attorney, Bill Moffitt.
Mr. BILL MOFFETT (Attorney, Al-Arian): Anyone who would sit there and would be called a criminal and a thug and all of those kinds of things, you know--tough things. He's OK. He's all right. But those are not easy things to hear about yourself.
DAVIS: In fact, Al-Arian's lawyers decided not to call any witnesses. They simply told the judge the defense rests. So now, Al-Arian's fate could hinge on closing remarks by Moffett and his co-counsel, Linda Moreno. Yesterday, they told the jury there is no evidence that Al-Arian conspired to commit any violent acts and that he had the right under the First Amendment to speak out in support of the Palestinian cause and related organizations. Again, attorney Bill Moffett.
Mr. MOFFETT: I just talked about, basically--is it reasonable for somebody whose people are being oppressed to come to the United States and to want to talk about it? Is that a reasonable thing for someone to do?
DAVIS: Moffett and Moreno did not address many of the specifics of the government's case: the wire taps, the cancelled checks to Islamic groups, the documents from suicide bombers found on Al-Arian's computer. Al-Arian's wife, Nahla, said US law gave the government all the advantages anyway.
Mrs. NAHLA AL-ARIAN: The whole conspiracy law is made up to help the government against the defendants. This is even not found in the worst dictatorships in the world. The government can do anything to you and you can't respond, you can't defend yourself.
DAVIS: If you do, she said, it looks like you're covering something up. So Al-Arian's team is now trying to make the case into a political trial and, yesterday, they spent much time trying to give the jury a crash course on the Middle East and on what they call the oppression of the Palestinians. And that's likely to continue today. It's a high-stakes strategy. If convicted, Al-Arian could face life in prison. Phillip Davis, NPR News, Tampa.
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