After almost six years in federal custody, former University of South Florida engineering professor Sami Al-Arian set foot outside prison Tuesday afternoon.
"As you can imagine, he is having a very cheerful reunion with his children," said his attorney Jonathan Turley.
Al-Arian, 50, had been held by immigration authorities pending his trial on contempt charges for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury in Virginia.
A federal judge had ordered Al-Arian released on bail in mid July, but officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement took him into custody.
The release of the former University of South Florida professor came as a surprise after ICE officials suddenly "elected to release Dr. Al-Arian" Tuesday, after a petition by his attorneys that his continued incarceration violated his constitutional rights. A federal judge had previously set Al-Arian's bail at $340,000.
According to law, immigration officials could hold Al-Arian for 90 days before either deporting him or releasing him. But ICE had held hwim for 130 days. In agreeing to release Al-Arian, ICE did not acknowledge that it had acted improperly.
Immigration officials called Al-Arian's attorney at noon Tuesday and told him to come to the Alexandria Detention Center to pick him up. His four children rode with their father while Turley drove them to his daughter Laila's apartment in Washington, D.C.
"There was a lot of excitement in that car," said Turley.
For the time being, Al-Arian still faces trial on the contempt charge, but federal judge Leonie Brinkema ordered the criminal contempt trial postponed indefinitely so that the U.S. Supreme Court could consider the case.
Aug. 14, she issued a written explanation of her decision.
The prosecutor, she said, had used language in an immunity order for Al-Arian that diverged from the statutes. Brinkema said, "The government has taken these proceedings into uncharted waters."
She wrote that she had "significant concerns about (the) conduct" of the prosecutor and wanted to see what the U.S. Supreme Court would decide about the criminal contempt charges against Al-Arian. She also wrote that she would further explore the "validity of the (prosecutor's) immunity order."
In December 2005, a Tampa jury acquitted Al-Arian on eight counts of aiding the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. That jury deadlocked on nine other counts.
Five months later, Al-Arian accepted a plea agreement, pleading guilty to one count of helping associates of the terrorist group with nonviolent activities. He was sentenced to 57-months in prison, most of which he had already served.
The plea agreement omitted the standard cooperation clause, and Al-Arian and his attorneys believed that this omission as well as verbal negotiations with federal prosecutors meant Al-Arian would not have to testify before a grand jury anywhere and would be deported when his sentence was completed in early 2007.
But his incarceration was lengthened by a year because he was held on civil contempt charges for refusing to testify before a grand jury in the Eastern District of Virginia. After two grand juries were dismissed, he was then charged with criminal contempt for refusing to testify.
Brinkema referred back to Al-Arian's plea agreement in her Aug. 14 opinion: "Of critical significance to this litigation, the plea agreement omitted the standard provision requiring the defendant's cooperation with the government," she wrote.
She called the proceedings in the case "complicated and unique," concluding that the court would "await the disposition of the … United States Supreme Court."
Meanwhile, Al-Arian is free and with four of his children for the first time in five years and seven months. His wife and a fifth child are in Cairo.
"It's like a dream being with our dad when he's not behind glass," said Laila. "We've hugged and hugged."
They ordered take-out from Al-Arian's favorite African restaurant: lamb chops, rice and salad. Then the family spent Al-Arian's first night of freedom watching the Republican National Convention.
Today, he will be fitted with an ankle bracelet and electronically monitored by the government.
Contact Meg Laughlin at email@example.com.
Time line | Sami Al-Arian
February 2003: Sami Al-Arian's home and offices are searched by FBI agents for the second time, and he is arrested with three other suspects. He spends most of the next 67 months in solitary confinement.
June 2005: Al-Arian trial begins.
December 2005: Al-Arian is acquitted of eight charges, and the jury deadlocks on nine others.
February 2006: Al-Arian pleads guilty to helping associates of a terrorist group in nonviolent ways.
May 2006: Al-Arian receives a 57-month sentence, most of which he has already served, and is to be deported in April 2007.
October 2006: Al-Arian is summoned to Virginia to testify before a grand jury about an Islamic think tank.
April 2008: Al-Arian completes his sentence plus an extra year because of the convening of two grand juries.
June 2008: Al-Arian is charged with criminal contempt for refusing to testify before the grand juries.
July 2008: A federal judge orders Al-Arian released on bail.