A Times Editorial

Shut down Al-Arian case and deport him

Officials may be considering charging Sami Al-Arian with criminal contempt.

Times files

Officials may be considering charging Sami Al-Arian with criminal contempt.

Sami Al-Arian is not a sympathetic figure, and the former University of South Florida computer science teacher who has admitted ties to the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad can't be deported soon enough. However, the Justice Department apparently is not through with him. It appears ready to erase the line between prosecution and persecution in this case.

The department was clearly embarrassed when Al-Arian, a man it accused of being a leading organizer for the PIJ in North America, was acquitted on eight charges related to international terrorist activities after a six-month trial. The jury also deadlocked on the remaining nine counts. Since then, the department has attempted to exact revenge for its own prosecutorial failures. In exchange for what Al-Arian thought was an end to his legal ordeal and a quick ticket to deportation, he agreed in 2006 to plead guilty to one count of conspiring to aid the PIJ. He was sentenced to 57 months, much of which he had already served while awaiting trial.

But before his sentence was fully served, Al-Arian was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in Virginia. Al-Arian refused, contending that part of his plea agreement with the department was that it terminated all business between him and the government. Al-Arian refused to sign the plea deal until boilerplate language about future cooperation with prosecutors was removed. But the government claims that all it agreed to was not to charge Al-Arian on facts already in evidence.

So far, two federal courts, including a unanimous decision by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in January, have found against Al-Arian. The courts said the plea agreement does not protect Al-Arian from being called before a grand jury and compelled to testify following a grant of immunity from prosecution.

Al-Arian has refused to cooperate, however, and has been held in prison under civil contempt citations.

As thing stand, a federal judge in Virginia has ended Al-Arian's confinement for civil contempt and his criminal sentence has been fully served. Al-Arian is on deck for deportation, probably to Gaza in the Palestinian territories. Except there may be a glitch. The Justice Department is apparently considering charging Al-Arian with criminal contempt — a charge that carries no maximum penalty. He could be facing another decade or more in prison if convicted.

Al-Arian's attorneys thought they had an understanding with federal prosecutors that he would not be asked to participate in any additional proceedings. Unfortunately, his attorneys didn't get that explicit language in the plea agreement. By exploiting this lapse, the Justice Department has been able to keep Al-Arian in prison beyond the agreed upon limits. If the department now seeks a criminal contempt charge, it will be attempting to achieve through legal manipulation what it could not secure through the jury process.

Al-Arian has been exposed for what he is — a liar and a supporter of terrorism directed at Israel. He has been incarcerated since February 2003. It's time to send him packing.

Shut down Al-Arian case and deport him 04/23/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 29, 2008 9:15am]

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