Federal judge says Sami Al-Arian plea deal does matter

For the first time, federal prosecutors in Alexandria, Va., have acknowledged that when Sami Al-Arian took a plea deal in early 2006, federal prosecutors in Tampa believed — as did Al-Arian — that it exempted him from testifying in other cases.

But with this surprising admission, which begins a 24-page document filed in Virginia federal court Wednesday night, comes a provocative argument: It doesn't matter.

"The understandings of the prosecutors who negotiated that agreement … are irrelevant to (Al-Arian's) guilt or innocence" for criminal contempt, wrote the Alexandria federal prosecutors, who maintain they are not bound by an agreement made in another district.

Despite what prosecutors in Tampa agreed to, the Virginia prosecutors argue they had a right to move Al-Arian to Virginia to testify. They also say that when Al-Arian repeatedly refused, citing a good-faith belief his plea agreement protected him, he was guilty of criminal contempt. He "willfully disobeyed," they say.

But U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema has said it does matter what he and the Tampa federal prosecutors agreed to. A criminal conviction could mean more prison time and she would need to see "a completely full record" to determine the length of his sentence.

Furthermore, Brinkema has said, she doesn't think "the Department of Justice can compartmentalize itself."

"This is not one U.S. Attorney's Office vs. another. … You have the United States Department of Justice … involved at both ends," she said.

Al-Arian took a plea deal in February 2006, in Tampa after a jury acquitted him on eight counts of aiding terrorists and deadlocked on nine counts. He pleaded guilty to aiding associates of the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad with nonviolent immigration needs.

Tampa prosecutors agreed with his defense attorneys that he would be deported within a few months of signing the plea agreement. But, instead, a Tampa federal judge sentenced him to 11 more months in prison.

Virginia prosecutors called that extra time "the window of opportunity" they needed to move Al-Arian to Virginia and force him to testify before a grand jury investigating an Islamic think tank.

Al-Arian's criminal contempt trial was scheduled to begin Monday, but Brinkema postponed it. A new date will be set Monday.

Contact Meg Laughlin at mlaughlin@sptimes.com.

Federal judge says Sami Al-Arian plea deal does matter 03/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 5, 2009 11:38pm]

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