Lawyers for a former college professor on trial for his alleged involvement in a deadly terrorist group denounced the prosecution yesterday as a violation of the First Amendment and portrayed their client as a Palestinian Arab freedom fighter in the proud tradition of the heroes of the American Revolution.
The former University of South Florida professor, Sami Al-Arian, and three co-defendants are charged in a federal indictment with operating an American cell of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that has killed about 200 people through suicide bombings and other attacks in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.
"Don't be fooled, ladies and gentlemen, this is not a criminal case. This is a political case," an attorney for Mr. Al-Arian, Linda Moreno, told the jury yesterday as she began the defense's closing arguments in the five-month-long trial.
"The prosecution against Sami Al-Arian is built and has been built entirely on his words," Ms. Moreno said, noting that prosecutors have agreed they have no evidence that the former computer science professor took part directly in any act of violence. "It has been a prosecution of his ideas and his beliefs. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is un-American," she argued.
Ms. Moreno said Mr. Al-Arian, who founded a series of pro-Palestinian groups, including a Tampa-based think tank, was singled out for his advocacy on behalf of the Arab residents of Gaza and the West Bank. "Sami Al-Arian is opposed to the military occupation by Israel. It's a political stand. They want you to punish him for that political belief," she said.
Ms. Moreno accused prosecutors of deliberately minimizing, even ignoring, the plight of Palestinian Arabs. She noted that while the first indictment filed in the case made repeated reference to the "occupied territories," all mention of occupation was deleted during a subsequent revision of the charges.
"They don't believe that the exploration of the Palestinian struggle and even the occupation could have any value," Ms. Moreno said. As she criticized prosecutors for referring to the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians as a "conflict," the attorney stopped just short of saying that Palestinian Islamic Jihad's bombings were legitimate.
"This is not a conflict. What is going on in the occupied territories is a war," Ms. Moreno said. "In a war, there is bloodshed. People die. People become dispossessed. They lose their homes."
Ms. Moreno said Palestinians have been living under occupation for more than six decades and have taken longer to turn to violence than did Americans living under British military rule. She read to the jury from a speech an American revolutionary, Patrick Henry, delivered at a Richmond, Va., church in 1775. "If we wish to be free, we must fight," the defense attorney said. Perhaps because of the ample and graphic evidence admitted in the case of suicide attacks carried out by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the attorney did not recite the stirring final line of Henry's call to arms: "Give me liberty or give me death."
Using more than 50 witnesses called since the trial opened in June, prosecutors have sought to prove that Mr. Al-Arian and his co-defendants, Sameeh Hammoudeh, Hatim Fariz, and Ghassan Ballut, provided logistical, public relations, and financial support to Palestinian Islamic Jihad through a series of front groups in Tampa and Chicago. Some of the most damaging evidence in the case comes from recordings the FBI made, pursuant to a secret court order, of phone conversations Mr. Al-Arian had with top officials of the terrorist group.
Prosecutors contend the former professor, who for years publicly denied any link to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, was a member of its "shura," or governing council.
In a rare concession to the prosecution, Ms. Moreno acknowledged that Mr. Al-Arian had a relationship with the group, which is directed from Damascus but operates primarily in Gaza. "The phone calls clearly show that Sami Al-Arian had an affiliation with the people in Islamic Jihad," she said. The defense lawyer did not elaborate.
After making an hour-long presentation, Ms. Moreno turned the floor over to another attorney for Mr. Al-Arian, William Moffitt. He took a more confrontational approach, shouting and pacing the courtroom until the judge instructed him to stay behind the lectern. Mr. Moffitt often pointed at one of the key prosecutors, Cherie Krigsman, who argued to jurors yesterday that "this case is not about the First Amendment."
"We are talking about freedom of speech," Mr. Moffitt insisted. "We are talking about the right to assemble, and we're also talking about the right to practice your religion as you choose."
Mr. Moffitt repeatedly framed the case as an effort by the government to silence a troublesome minority group. "If only they would adopt and share the views of their oppressor, everything would be all right," he said sarcastically. "This man has the temerity - the temerity to be angry about the way his people were treated. How dare he? How dare he?"
Mr. Moffitt's presentation is scheduled to resume today. Closing arguments on behalf of the other defendants are expected to follow.
During her second day of closing arguments yesterday, Ms. Krigsman urged jurors to ignore the defense's arguments that Israeli-Palestinian strife might excuse the conduct of the defendants and of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. "Your verdict will not be a referendum on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," she said.
The defense has portrayed the Palestinian terror group as no threat to Americans at home, but Ms. Krigsman rejected that analysis. "Acts of terror don't just strike one nation or one people. They strike all of humanity," she said. For three hours yesterday, the prosecutor outlined evidence against the defendants chronologically from 1995 until 2002, including phone calls to a reporter in which Mr. Al-Arian appeared to lie about his knowledge of Ramadan Shallah, a scholar who worked at Mr. Al-Arian's think tank before becoming secretary-general of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The judge in the case, James Moody, barred the defense from offering generic testimony about Palestinian political claims or the conditions in Gaza and the West Bank. Last month, Mr. Al-Arian's defense team passed up the opportunity to put their client on the stand or call witnesses in his defense. However, in her closing arguments, Ms. Moreno managed to use several prosecution exhibits to portray the Israeli military presence in the territories as brutal and oppressive.
"They kill babies while they're asleep," Ms. Moreno said, reading from an FBI printout of a posting on a Palestinian Islamic Jihad Web site.
Ms. Moreno also projected a map of the Middle East on a screen facing the jury box, circled Gaza with a red pen, and wrote next to it, "A BIG JAIL!" She took the comment from a Palestinian Arab witness who testified in the case.
Ms. Moreno also defended $8,000 in payments prosecutors claim Mr. Al-Arian sent to the families of terrorists in 1993. "That was not illegal," she said. The federal government began restricting payments to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and its officers two years later.
About two dozen supporters of Mr. Al-Arian who gathered outside the courthouse looked more joyous yesterday than on previous occasions. They greeted Mr. Moffitt warmly as he emerged from the building. "You made us all very proud," Mr. Al-Arian's son, Abdullah, told the lawyer.
Speaking to reporters after court concluded for the day, Sami Al-Arian's wife complained that the conspiracy laws used in the indictment in the case are more onerous than the actions of the world's most oppressive regimes. "Conspiracy law is made up to help the government against defendants," Nahla Al-Arian said.