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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Al-Arian trial scheduled to begin today

 (The Spokesman-Review)
Pedro Ruz Gutierrez The Orlando Sentinel

TAMPA, Fla. – A former college professor is set to enter Tampa’s federal courthouse in shackles and handcuffs today, taking center stage in one of the most anticipated trials of a young and fearful century.

Former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian faces terrorism charges along with eight co-defendants in a case that began percolating a decade ago but took on new meaning and controversy after Sept 11, 2001. Only four of the nine will be in court as opening arguments begin – the rest are still at large overseas.

Al-Arian and the others face 53 counts including racketeering, conspiracy to kill civilians, money laundering and giving material support to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group. The PIJ has claimed responsibility for at least 100 deaths in Israel, including several Americans. The group is led by former University of South Florida instructor Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, one of the defendants still at large.

Fueled by debate over civil liberties and homeland security, the saga has prompted concerns that such prosecutions enflame anti-Muslim sentiments.

The 47-year-old Al-Arian, in court documents and in statements after his arrest, argues the government has sought to criminalize his speech and muzzle his unpopular political views. He calls himself a political prisoner.

Prosecutors are adamant that the indictment is not about Al-Arian’s First Amendment rights to freedom of expression and association. In a trial expected to last at least six months, jurors will have to decide how far Al-Arian took his speech and private conversations, hours of which were secretly recorded by FBI intelligence units.

According to the government, two nonprofits he founded in Tampa – Islamic Concern Project and World Islam Studies Enterprise – were used by him and others to secretly fund suicide bombings and to provide cover for suspected or known terrorists who visited the United States in the 1990s. ICP, also known as the Islamic Committee for Palestine, and WISE were once affiliated with the University of South Florida and held annual scholarly conferences and fundraisers.

It was at one of these gatherings in 1988 that Al-Arian was videotaped shouting, “Death to Israel!” In a 2002 interview, he claimed his quote was taken out of its cultural context and he only meant “death” to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.