Lying to the media is not a crime in America.
But prosecutors Thursday presented evidence that Sami Al-Arian lied to at least one reporter about his involvement in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and his relation to Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, who in late October 1995 emerged as the new secretary general of the terrorist organization.
The government contends that Al-Arian's lies to the media were part of a coverup to further a criminal conspiracy to help organize and fund the Islamic Jihad while he worked as a professor at the University of South Florida.
For three weeks, prosecutors have been reading to jurors from transcripts of wiretapped conversations and faxes, which captured Al-Arian's deep involvement in Islamic Jihad business in 1994. They showed him proposing financial reform for the organization's governing body and also floating ideas for a merger with Hamas, a larger terrorist group.
More than on any other day in the trial, Thursday's testimony cast the Tampa area's two main newspapers in opposing roles in this case, with The Tampa Tribune pursuing Al-Arian's alleged links to terrorism and the St. Petersburg Times expressing skepticism about the stories.
Thursday's court session began with transcripts of conversations between Al-Arian and other Islamic Jihad officials discussing their rage over a May 1995 series by Tribune reporter Michael Fechter, examining Al-Arian's ties to the Islamic Jihad.
The court day ended with prosecutors playing tapes of October 1995 telephone conversations Al-Arian had with a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times in which Al-Arian denied any involvement with any "political organization."
In one May 1995 conversation, Bashir Nafi, another member of the Islamic Jihad's shura council, or board of directors, calls Fechter "third class."
Al-Arian responds using a profanity to describe the reporter. "This is an Israeli job, my brother," Al-Arian said.
The two also angrily discussed a story in the New Republic magazine by Steven Emerson, Al-Arian's nemesis whose 1994 documentary "Jihad in America" first publicly linked Al-Arian to the terrorist organization.
Prosecutors also read from a transcript of a May 10, 1995, conversation between Nafi and Fathi Shikaki, who was secretary general of the Islamic Jihad until he was assassinated on Oct. 26, 1995.
In what the prosecution says was a reference to the pending newspaper investigation of Al- Arian, Shikaki said Al-Arian "should conduct a counterattack to clear himself."
Then on Oct. 31, 1995, St. Petersburg Times reporter Jim Harper called Al-Arian because wire reports stated that Shallah had emerged as the new secretary general of the Islamic Jihad. Shallah had left Al-Arian's think tank, World and Islam Studies Enterprise, and a position as an adjunct professor at USF in June 1995.
The initial reports of Shallah's new position cited information from Emerson.
"You know me. I'm a skeptic," Harper told Al-Arian. "I don't believe all the stuff that gets put out by Steven Emerson."
Al-Arian said the news was "a shock." He said he knew Shallah only by the name Ramadan Abdullah. "I've never heard that name, `Shallah,' "
In a later conversation, after the first reports were confirmed, Al-Arian told Harper, "I never brought him [Shallah] to USF or America."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Walter E. Furr showed jurors Shallah's petition for nonimmigrant worker status filed with the Immigration and Naturalization Service on Sept. 8, 1993. The petition, which gave Shallah's whole name, listed WISE as his sponsor and was signed by Al-Arian.
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