CAIRO — The family of Sami Al-Arian reacted with joy Thursday to news from Virginia that a federal judge had granted the former University of South Florida professor bail as he awaits trial on contempt charges.
"We're almost afraid to have hope," said Leena, Al-Arian's 23-year-old daughter, "because every time we do, we get knocked down. But, maybe, this time will be different."
But their joy was tempered by subsequent news that immigration officials would keep Al-Arian in custody for the time being. Al-Arian has been held in prison since February 2003, when he was charged with multiple terrorism-related counts.
In late 2005, a Tampa jury acquitted him on eight of the charges and deadlocked on nine others. In May 2006, Al-Arian accepted a plea agreement for helping associates of a terrorist organization with nonviolent activities. He finished serving his 57-month sentence in April.
Under the terms of the plea deal, Al-Arian would have been deported "expeditiously" as soon as the sentence was done, but a federal prosecutor in Virginia wanted him to testify before a grand jury investigating an Islamic think tank in Herndon, Va. Al-Arian refused, saying it violated the terms of his plea agreement.
Al-Arian's trial on the criminal contempt charges is scheduled for mid August. If found guilty, he could remain in prison for years.
Al-Arian's attorney, Jonathan Turley, said, "The government has painted itself into a corner with Dr. Al-Arian. … Either it must release him on bond or deport him very soon."
What "soon" means is not clear.
Arturo Rios Jr., a St. Petersburg lawyer specializing in immigration issues, said it's not uncommon for a judge to grant bail and then for immigration officials to take custody of an individual.
Once Al-Arian is in the custody of ICE, authorities will have 48 hours to give him a notice to appear, which Rios described as a summons to begin the deportation process. He said deportation could happen within 60 days from that point or take up to a year, depending on the case.
In a separate order from Al-Arian's conditions of release, which include him posting $340,000 he has in his retirement pension, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said that ICE has filed an immigration detainer with the U.S. Marshal Service. Brinkema ordered that once Al-Arian posts bail, he must be released into the custody of ICE. Officials are to make Al-Arian available for all hearings in his criminal case.
After court Thursday, Turley called the contempt case is "a ruse." Al-Arian has spoken with prosecutors about the think tank and has even agreed to take a polygraph test. What the prosecutors really want, said Turley, is Al-Arian to answer questions about the Florida case, "which is a clear violation of the plea agreement."
Prosecutors in Virginia could not be reached for comment.
Linda Moreno, who represented Al-Arian at his 2005 trial, cheered the judge's ruling. "I'm so happy that Judge Brinkema restores the confidence that Americans are due in our system of justice," she said.
Becky Steele, regional director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the judge appears to be holding the executive branch accountable.
"The heartening thing for me here is that the system seems to be working and that the judge is making an independent assessment of what seems to be persecution by the government," Steele said.
But lawyer Eddie Suarez said he doesn't think the ruling does much.
"At the end of the day, I'm not sure we've accomplished a whole lot," Suarez said. "He'll still be held on these immigration issues."
If Al-Arian is released on bond, his wife, Nahla, 47, said she and two of her children will return from Cairo to the United States to reunite with her husband and their three other children.
On the other hand, the family will wait to reunite in Cairo if Al-Arian is deported soon.
"Either way, it looks as if we will finally be a family again," Nahla said.
Meg Laughlin can be reached at [email protected]