x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Judge calls off hearing

A US judge cancels a hearing in the case of a former professor and Palestinian activist once accused of running the North American operations of a terrorist group.

WASHINGTON // A US judge unexpectedly cancelled a hearing scheduled for yesterday in the case of Sami al Arian, a former professor and Palestinian activist once accused of running the North American operations of a terrorist group and now facing criminal charges for refusing to testify in separate investigations. Al Arian faces criminal contempt charges for refusing to testify in two grand jury investigations in Northern Virginia. His lawyers say the charges should be dropped because forcing him to testify violated a 2006 plea bargain he struck with prosecutors in Florida.

Leonie Brinkema, a federal judge, last month suggested the deal may not have been in good faith if prosecutors were already planning to subpoena al Arian, who believed his plea would lead to swift deportation. On Thursday, Judge Brinkema cancelled the hearing at which she was expected to rule on al Arian's petition to dismiss the case, saying she had all the evidence she needed and that "additional oral argument will not aid the decisional process".

She promised to issue a written ruling "in the near future". Outside the justice department in Washington, DC, about two dozen supporters of al Arian, including his family, campaigned yesterday for his release. Al Arian was born in Kuwait to Palestinian refugees and has lived in the United States since 1975. He was a tenured professor of computer science at the University of South Florida in Tampa at the time of his much-publicised arrest in Feb 2003 on terrorism charges, stemming from his alleged links to Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), a group the United States designates a terrorist organisation.

An ardent activist for Palestinian independence who had campaigned for George W Bush during the 2000 election and been invited to the White House in 2001, al Arian had by the time of his arrest already defended a statement in 1991 in which he called for "death to Israel", saying he meant an end to Israeli occupation, not the murder of civilians. The US government further alleged that he had praised the acts of suicide bombers and condemned the United States. Still, a jury in 2005 acquitted al Arian of eight terrorism-related charges and remained deadlocked on the other nine, with 10 of the 12 jurors favouring acquittal on all charges, according to local media.

Al Arian agreed to a plea bargain in 2006 because, he has said, he wanted to avoid a lengthy and costly retrial. He pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to assist the PIJ and the prosecution agreed to recommend the minimum sentence - the time he had already served in prison - followed by a speedy deportation. The sentencing judge, James S Moody Jr, however, ordered the maximum sentence of 57 months, less the three years he had already served and called him a "master manipulator".

Mr Moody mocked the defendant's claim of charitable work: "Your only connection to widows and orphans is that you create them, even among the Palestinians," he is quoted as saying in a transcript of the sentencing hearing. Over the next two years al Arian was summoned by Gordon Kromberg, a US assistant attorney, to testify in three grand juries investigating terrorism ties to Muslim groups in Northern Virginia. He refused in all cases on the advice of his lawyers.

Al Arian has been under house arrest since September, when he was released from jail after five-and-half years, much of which he spent in solitary confinement under conditions Amnesty International has called "beyond what were necessary" and "indicative of a pattern of abuse based on his political or ethnic profile". For some of his supporters, the case exemplifies post-September 11 antiterrorism efforts that undermined themselves by going too far. For others, it is proof of an inherent, anti-Muslim bias in the US judicial system.

"I know what's happened to him has happened to a lot of people and could happen to any one of us," said Mel Underbakke, a former colleague of al Arian's at the University of south Florida, describing al Arian's years of imprisonment and legal battles as "the denial of rights that are guaranteed by our constitution". Lawyers for al Arian would not comment, citing court rules. A spokesman for the US attorney's office also would not comment on the case.

* The National