A defense attorney for a former college professor on trial for his alleged leadership role in a terrorist group conceded in court yesterday that his client lied to the press and immigration authorities in what the lawyer described as an effort to keep a Palestinian Arab think tank afloat.
The former computer science professor, Sami Al-Arian, and three co-defendants are on trial for allegedly acting as the American wing of a terrorist group responsible for about 200 deaths in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
In his closing arguments, Mr. Al-Arian's lawyer, William Moffitt, also appeared to acknowledge that the think tank the former professor founded, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, was funded by the terrorist group, whose leadership is based in Syria.
Mr. Moffitt said the lies were the result of Mr. Al-Arian's distress when a former director of the think tank, Ramadan Shallah, drew unexpected attention in 1995 after he emerged as the new head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
"Is it evil? He lied to the newspaper. There's no question about it," Mr. Moffitt said of his client. "So he lied. Confronted with the same thing, what would you do?"
Mr. Moffitt said Mr. Al-Arian's omissions on a citizenship application and his false statements about Mr. Shallah were not intended to advance the violent undertakings of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. "Everything that Sami Al-Arian did was motivated to keeping WISE alive," the attorney said. "His purpose and intent was not to do anything illegal."
Mr. Moffitt suggested that the lies were justified because the press's focus on Mr. Shallah's role threatened to disrupt Mr. Al-Arian's ability to spread the word about the plight of Palestinian Arabs. "The story was never going to be about the abuse of people in Palestine," the lawyer said.
The concessions appeared to be a last-minute bid to spare Mr. Al-Arian from conviction on the most serious charges, such as conspiracy to commit murder, while accepting possible guilty verdicts on other counts, such as immigration fraud.
Mr. Moffitt asserted that the entire case should never have been brought because Palestinian Islamic Jihad is part of an ongoing "war" between Palestinian Arabs and Israelis. "This is not a criminal conspiracy," the lawyer said.
Mr. Moffitt noted that the prosecution introduced evidence that after peace talks floundered in the 1990s the president of the Palestinian Authority, Yasser Arafat, signaled terrorist groups to resume attacks. "Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad are instruments of foreign policy," the attorney said.
The defense lawyer also accused prosecutors of giving "some sort of exemption" to a Cleveland-based cleric, Fawaz Damra. Jurors have seen video of a frenzied, screaming Damra at a 1989 conference Mr. Al-Arian organized, declaring ,"Terrorism and terrorism alone is the path to victory." Damra was not charged in the current case, though he was named as an unindicted co-conspirator.
"Where in the world is Fawaz Damra?" Mr. Moffitt asked. "How did he get left out of this party?"
Damra was convicted of immigration fraud in Ohio last year and is facing deportation proceedings.
In a subsequent closing argument yesterday, an attorney for another of the defendants, Sameeh Hammoudeh, took a sharply different tack. The lawyer, Stephen Bernstein, sought to distance the former graduate student and WISE employee from both Mr. Al-Arian and the tactics employed by his defense.
While Mr. Al-Arian's attorneys offered no criticism of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and repeatedly attempted to justify its violence, Mr. Bernstein called the group's suicide bombings "horrific" and "atrocious."
Mr. Bernstein described Hammoudeh as a Palestinian moderate, whose writings endorsed peace negotiations and acknowledged anti-Semitism. The attorney said Hammoudeh did not comply with some of Mr. Al-Arian's requests, such as an attempt to craft questionable receipts for charitable donations. Mr. Bernstein said Hammoudeh was preoccupied with his studies and was "used" by others in the case. "He is not the extension of Sami Al-Arian," the defense lawyer said.
Mr. Bernstein disputed the government's claim that Hammoudeh was implicated by a 1994 wiretap that captured a discussion of Palestinian Islamic Jihad's payroll in America. The defense lawyer said salaries paid to others appeared to account for the monthly $7,000 outlay. However, Mr. Bernstein left conspicuously unexplained a reference in the audio recording to "one thousand for Sameeh."
"This case for Sameeh Hammoudeh is guilt by association and that's it," the attorney said.
In February, Hammoudeh and his wife, Nadia, pled guilty to federal conspiracy, tax, and immigration charges brought separately from the terrorism prosecution. The couple was sentenced to probation and has agreed to be deported.