For the first time in more than 11 years, former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian is no longer facing federal charges.
A judge Friday granted a motion from federal prosecutors in Virginia and dismissed criminal contempt charges against Al-Arian, a Palestinian activist whose case sat in limbo for five years in front of the skeptical judge, who gave no explanation for failing to move the case along in a court district known as the “rocket docket” for its speedy trials.
Al-Arian, 56, is likely to be deported under the terms of an order entered in Tampa in 2006 as part of his sentence following a plea deal after his prosecution on terrorism charges mostly fell apart.
Deportation would end a nearly 20-year-long saga pitting the former computer science professor described by supporters as a peace activist against the U.S. Justice Department, which has targeted him as a terrorism supporter. Federal agents first began investigating Al-Arian in 1995.
Although Al-Arian was never accused of supporting any terrorism on American soil, the case against him grew amid terrorism fears following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
He was indicted in 2003 by a federal grand jury in Tampa on charges he played a leadership role in the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which was accused of launching attacks against civilians in Israel. The indictment gained national attention when it was announced at a press conference by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft.
After a six-month trial ended in 2005 with jurors unable to convict him - acquitting him on eight charges and deadlocking on nine others - Al-Arian ended up taking a plea bargain on a greatly reduced charge. He agreed to be deported and was sentenced in 2006 to 57 months in federal prison.
Since 2008, federal prosecutors in Virginia have pursued contempt charges for his refusal to testify before a grand jury investigating charities accused of funding terrorist operations overseas.
Al-Arian was scheduled to go on trial in August 2008, but Judge Leonie Brinkema postponed the trial, questioning whether the prosecution had been overzealous.
For more than five years, the case has sat dormant on the court docket. Brinkema failed to rule on pretrial motions to dismiss the case, even after issuing court statements saying she soon would decide the issues.
On Friday, the prosecution’s dismissal motion was granted by another judge, Anthony Trenga, and not by Brinkema.
In its motion Friday, the government says it stands by its previous assertions that the case is legitimate.
“Nevertheless,” the motion says, “in light of the passage of time without resolution, the United States has decided that the best available course of action is to move to dismiss the indictment so that action can be taken to remove the defendant from the United States” in accordance with the Tampa order.
Al-Arian’s lawyer, Jonathan Turley, said in a blog post Friday that the case “remains one of the most troubling chapters in this nation’s crackdown after 9-11. Despite the jury verdict and the agreement reached to allow Dr. Al-Arian to leave the country, the Justice Department continued to fight for his incarceration and for a trial in his case. It will remain one of the most disturbing cases of my career in terms of the actions taken by our government.”
Turley told The Tampa Tribune that Al-Arian “is not making any comments at this time.”
Mel Underbakke, a friend and supporter, said her first reaction to hearing about the motion to dismiss was “total shock.” She said she’s happy that the limbo is coming to an end for Al-Arian and his family. But she’s sad he is now facing deportation.
“I have admiration for him and his whole family,” said Underbakke, who said she visited Al-Arian a month or two ago. He now has grandchildren, she said.
She called Al-Arian “a big defender of civil liberties and humanitarian causes,” and said, “I would miss him a lot if he was deported.”
At one point, Al-Arian’s wife, Nahla, moved to Egypt in anticipation of her husband’s deportation. When that didn’t happen, Underbakke said, she moved back to the U.S.
Al-Arian, a former tenured USF computer science professor, was president of the Islamic Committee for Palestine, which an Al-Arian associate publicly described in 1991 as “the active arm of the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine.” He incorporated the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE), an Islamic think tank that worked with a USF faculty group to organize seminars and share libraries.
As part of his plea deal, Al-Arian insisted that prosecutors not include a provision requiring his cooperation with authorities. But a federal prosecutor in Virginia sought to compel Al-Arian to testify at a grand jury there. And various courts have held that Al-Arian’s plea agreement did not shield him from requirements to testify, especially, such as in the Virginia case, where the government bestowed a grant of immunity from prosecution for anything he might say.
However, the judge has questioned the government’s tactics and changes it made to the immunity order.
Al-Arian served his 57-month sentence in the Tampa case. He has been been under court supervision while free on bond in the Virginia contempt case.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.