BOISE – An Idaho jury found Sami Al-Hussayen innocent of terrorism charges on Thursday, after weeks of testimony from government experts and stacks of exhibits.
The University of Idaho graduate student was acquitted of all three terrorism charges against him, plus three immigration charges. Jurors deadlocked on the remaining eight immigration charges, and federal Judge Edward Lodge declared a mistrial on those charges.
“We had less trouble with the first three counts (the terrorism charges) than all the rest of ‘em,” said juror John Steger, a retired Forest Service worker. “I guess I’d say it was a lack of evidence.”
Jurors painstakingly combed through hundreds of pages of intercepted e-mails, phone calls, Web pages, financial records and more, Steger said, but found little to support terrorism allegations. “It showed he was involved in what he was doing, but it seemed rather innocent, the stuff he was talking about,” Steger said.
Al-Hussayen, a Saudi citizen, was accused of providing material support to terrorists by operating and maintaining various Web sites for an Islamic group, the Islamic Assembly of North America, and by funneling donations to the group. He also was charged with visa fraud and false statements, for doing the unpaid Internet work after certifying on immigration forms that he was coming to the United States “solely” to study.
Prosecutors contended the Web sites formed a network that helped terrorists raise money and drum up recruits for acts of violence overseas, but the defense characterized them as innocent religious and analytical sites.
“Ninety-five percent of it was fine, and the stuff that was inflammatory, by the First Amendment, he had the right to do that,” Steger said. “I guess the question was, would putting this on Web sites cause people to sign up with terrorists? I don’t know.”
Defense attorney David Nevin declared the verdict a victory for the First Amendment. “I hope the message is that the First Amendment is important and meaningful in this country, and activities protected by the First Amendment really shouldn’t be subject to prosecution,” he said. He said the case represented a “pushing of the envelope” by prosecutors, that he hopes won’t be repeated.
U.S. Attorney for Idaho Tom Moss said, “I was surprised, I was disappointed, but we accept it. . . . I don’t think it’ll affect in any degree the way the war on terror proceeds. The Department of Justice is still committed, as is our office, to vigorously pursuing and prosecuting anyone who supports terrorism, and this case is not going to deter those efforts.”
Several experts, however, said they expect the verdict to have impact.
“It is encouraging to me as a civil liberties attorney to see the jury so clearly distinguish between the right to freedom of expression on controversial matters, and acts of terrorism,” said Nancy Chang, senior litigation attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. “Since Sept. 11th, the trend, starting with the Patriot Act, has been to expand the definition of terrorism to the point where free speech is at best chilled, and at times even criminalized.”
William C. Bradford, a law professor at Indiana University, said he thought the case would make the government “a little bit more circumspect” about bringing terrorism charges against Web site administrators, or others whose connections to terrorism are indirect or tenuous.
It’s now up to prosecutors to decide whether to try again to prosecute Al-Hussayen, 34, on the remaining visa fraud and false statement charges that brought the mistrial. “We’ll need to take a few days to look at it and make a determination,” Moss said.
Al-Hussayen remains jailed on an immigration hold. He’s been ordered deported, but is appealing that ruling. However, since his wife and three young sons already have returned to Saudi Arabia rather than face deportation, Al-Hussayen may do the same.
The four-man, eight-woman jury spent seven days deliberating on the 14 charges against Al-Hussayen, but juror Steger said they reached unanimous agreement to acquit Al-Hussayen on the terrorism charges by about the third or fourth day.
“The part that surprised me was when I read the First Amendment instructions,” Steger said. “I was surprised to learn that people could say whatever they want . . . providing it would not cause imminent action.”
Moss said he never viewed the case as a First Amendment issue. “This case was about conduct,” he said. “The charges were about conduct of . . . providing expert services to recruit and raise funds for terrorism. That’s conduct.”
Al-Hussayen was the first person to be charged with providing material support to terrorists by operating Web sites. He also was the first to face visa fraud charges for engaging in activities outside class after certifying he was here “solely” to study.
“It was a different kind of a charge, one they hadn’t done before,” Moss said. “The verdict doesn’t diminish the good work that’s happened in this case. It has been good, it’s been effective, and I recognize that.”
Steger said the jury spent much of its time in deliberations reading and interpreting its complicated instructions, and haggling over the visa fraud and false statements charges, which jurors found confusing.
“We all think that they’re going to revise those (immigration) forms, to make them more clear,” Steger said. “Like, what does the word solely’ mean? What does the word business’ mean? What does the word volunteer’ mean? None of those are in the law.”
He added, “Our jury was not at all like the juries on TV. We were cordial. There was no name-calling, no pounding fists on the table, things like that.”
Jurors acquitted Al-Hussayen on two charges of visa fraud and one of false statements. The remaining charges that brought a deadlock are similar, but deal with immigration laws as revised after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Steger said jurors were roughly evenly divided on those charges.
Ed Hiddleson, foreman of the jury, said several jurors might hold a press conference in the coming days to share their perspectives. He was reluctant to say much immediately, but said he “wouldn’t agree entirely” with Steger that the terrorism charges were easier to decide. “My position is a little bit different,” he said. “There was a lot of emotion that’s been going on the last few days.”
Al-Hussayen was just months away from earning his doctorate in computer science at the University of Idaho when he was arrested in February of 2003. He has continued to do some limited work toward his degree from his jail cell.
Whether or not he returns to Saudi Arabia, Nevin said, “My guess is that Sami, knowing him, will get this (doctorate) done one way or another.”
Nevin was besieged with so many calls about the verdict at his law office late Thursday afternoon that his voice-mail box reached capacity. Meanwhile, he was at the Ada County Jail, visiting Al-Hussayen.
“He’s happy about the verdict, the part of it that was returned, anyway,” Nevin said from the jail. “He’s just sitting here on pins and needles, waiting to see what happens next. He would love to be able to go and be reunited with his family.”