by MEG LAUGHLIN | St. Petersburg Times Tampa Bay | 7 June 2005
The prosecution tries to link the former USF professor to killings in Israel; the defense says there's no connection.
TAMPA - "Israel. Murder. Tampa cell. Pure PIJ."
These were the words Assistant U.S. Attorney Terry Furr repeated Monday in his opening statement in the federal terrorism trial of former USF professor Sami Al-Arian.
But the prosecutor did not make clear connections between the defendants and charges that they conspired to provide "material support" to terrorists who were part of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization in Israel.
Instead, jurors and observers heard a hodgepodge of names, dates and descriptions of killings in Israel; constant reminders that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad was responsible; and claims that the defendants ran a U.S. branch of the organization out of Tampa.
Furr promised the jurors, on one hand, that the government would show them "the double lives ... and dedication to the PIJ" of the defendants. But he told them: "You're not going to see that they're personally involved in killings."
To hear the opening statements, people began lining up outside the courthouse at 6 a.m. By the time Furr began talking at 9:30, 28 spectators had squeezed into the packed courtroom on the 13th floor of the courthouse, and 40 more were in an overflow room with a TV monitor.
Meanwhile, outside the courthouse, trucks from major news outlets - including ABC, Fox, NBC, CBS and the Arab networks Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya - sent satellite feeds to viewers.
At noon, about two dozen protesters, including a handful of daughters of the four men on trial, demonstrated outside Tampa's federal courthouse with signs that said: "Everyone deserves a fair trial."
When Al-Arian's wife, Nahla Al-Arian, stopped in front of the courthouse, several demonstrators paused to hug her.
But nearby, an Israeli couple, Yafa and Michele El Harrar, told a somber tale about their 18-year-old daughter, Maya El Harrar, who died in a 1994 Palestinian car bomb attack in Israel that killed eight people and injured 52.
Their attorney said Yafa El Harrar would testify later in the trial about how her daughter was killed in the first of five attacks that allegedly can be traced to Al-Arian funds.
Back in the courtroom, the closest Furr got to linking the defendants to conspiring to fund violence in Israel was his reference to a February 1995 letter that was taken from Al-Arian's Tampa house during an FBI raid.
Furr told jurors that the letter, written by Al-Arian, referred to a double suicide bombing at Beit Lid, Israel, on Jan. 22, 1995, that killed 22 people. Furr said the letter showed that Al-Arian "solicited financial support to commit more murders" by asking for money for the suicide bombers' families.
Furr summarized the letter's contents: "Please give us money so we can do it some more."
Quoting from the Al-Arian letter, which appeared to be the government's strongest piece of evidence, the prosecutor read these words to connect Al-Arian to the Beit Lid tragedy: "The latest operation, carried out by the mujahadeen, is the best guide to what we can do.... Those martyred ... owed debts and had big families who are poor, hungry and destitute.... I call upon you for true support so that operations such as these can continue."
Furr said a "wiretap will show that the letter was hand-delivered" to a man named Al Shatti in Kuwait.
But this piece of evidence, which the government promised to present in more detail as the trial goes on, raises a question that goes to the heart of the case against the defendants:
Does requesting money for the "poor, hungry and destitute" families of suicide bombers show that Sami Al-Arian and the other defendants - Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Zayed Ballut and Hatem Naji Fariz - conspired to provided material support to future violence?
According to the law, as referenced in a court order that presiding federal Judge James S. Moody issued last August, the prosecution must prove the money raised by the defendants knowingly went for one of the following items or services, which contributed to the violence: "currency, finances, financial services, lodging, training, false documents or IDs, communications equipment, facilities, weapons, lethal substances, explosives, personnel transportation or other physical assets."
Would a request for money for the families of dead suicide bombers - even if Al-Arian called it "true support" - fit into one of these categories?
In his opening statement, Al-Arian's defense attorney William Moffitt raised this very issue. He told jurors that they would have to decide if there was "any existing agreement between the people who received the money and violent intent."
He said that the prosecution would not be able to show there was any connection.
"Do the people who are relatives have a right to receive charity? It is not against the law," Moffitt said.
He characterized the case as being about unpopular ideas and the right to express them, rather than conspiracy to provide material aid to terrorists. He asked the jury: "Are we going to remain true to our heritage so that everybody's ideas and beliefs have a free shot?"
When Moffitt finished his opening statement, Moody told jurors to report back at 8:45 a.m. today. Defense attorneys for the other three defendants are to make opening statements.