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Judge sets trial for Sami Al-Arian on criminal contempt charge

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A federal judge ruled Friday that Sami Al-Arian will stand trial in March on a criminal contempt charge.

The former University of South Florida professor had requested that the charge be dismissed based on "selective prosecution."

But, while U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema agreed with Al-Arian that such prosecutions are rare and that the facts of his case are "absolutely unique," the judge said a jury would have to decide if Al-Arian committed a crime.

According to federal prosecutors in Virginia, the criminal contempt charge stems from Al-Arian's refusal to testify before a grand jury about the actions of a Virginia think tank, the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT).

Over 16 years ago, the think tank gave $50,000 to WISE (World and Islam Studies Enterprise), a former think tank on Middle Eastern issues at USF run by Al-Arian. Federal prosecutors want Al-Arian to testify about the details of that transaction.

But, according to documents filed by Al-Arian's attorneys, Al-Arian "did cooperate and answer questions on IIIT" for federal prosecutors. This shows, wrote the attorneys, that the Virginia prosecutors are "ultimately not interested in IIIT … but want to revisit the Tampa trial."

The Tampa trial ended in December 2005 when a jury acquitted Al-Arian of eight terrorism charges, some related to the financial transactions of WISE, and deadlocked on nine other charges, 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal.

At the upcoming criminal contempt trial, said the judge, "the jury will have the flesh on the bones of that case" and be given details.

After the Tampa trial, Al-Arian signed a plea agreement, pleading guilty to one count of providing immigration services to associates of the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Brinkema said Friday that Al-Arian believed the plea agreement protected him from further testimony, and the criminal contempt jury will also learn about that.

Al-Arian was sentenced to 57 months in prison and was due to be released and deported to Egypt in April 2007. He had been incarcerated for more than two years before the Tampa trial.

But civil contempt charges in Virginia and an immigration order kept him in prison more than a year longer. Then, prosecutors charged him with criminal contempt.

In September, Brinkema released Al-Arian on bond while she waited to see if the U.S. Supreme Court would rule on whether federal prosecutors in Virginia had violated his plea agreement when they called him to testify before a grand jury.

After the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, Brinkema took up the issue of criminal contempt again.

"I can't believe that after all we've been through Sami has to go through another trial," said his wife, Nahla, as she and her husband left the courthouse.

The trial is scheduled for March 9.

Judge sets trial for Sami Al-Arian on criminal contempt charge 01/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, January 16, 2009 9:34pm]
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