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Wife disputes Al-Arian interview

During sensitive and secret negotiations between federal prosecutors and defense attorneys over a plea agreement for Sami Al-Arian, who could be retried on nine terrorism-related counts, Al-Arian gave an interview to the Orlando Sentinel.

In the interview, published Wednesday, Al-Arian spoke briefly about the delicate negotiations.

Sentinel reporter Pedro Ruz Guitierrez wrote that Al-Arian said he would take only a plea agreement that would "guarantee his freedom while allowing him to be able to declare "victory.' "

Al-Arian's wife, Nahla, who was at the Orient Road Jail when Guitierrez interviewed her husband, says the reporter twisted her husband's words and attributed her off-the-record words to her husband.

"Sami did not say he would only accept victory in a plea agreement. He said that the agreement would have to preserve the jury verdict and the victory rendered by it. He wanted to honor the jurors. He was not talking about a personal victory for himself," Nahla Al-Arian told the St. Petersburg Times Wednesday.

Al-Arian faces a retrial on nine counts of terrorism-related charges. A jury acquitted him on eight counts and hung on nine in December at the end of his six-month trial. He was charged with conspiring to raise money for the violent acts of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Israel and the occupied territories. But negotiations, resulting in a plea agreement, would mean there would be no retrial.

What effect, if any, Al-Arian's alleged words in the Sentinel article will have on negotiations is not clear.

"The comments don't make it any easier to reach a deal, but they're probably not a killer," said state Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami criminal defense attorney who was a former federal prosecutor.

Gelber said a plea agreement for Al-Arian would depend upon much more than what Al-Arian said to a reporter. The federal judge has a lot of control, he said, and sentencing guidelines will play a large part in the outcome. "Nevertheless," said Gelber, "any public comments about these very complex negotiations can't help."

Guitierrez would not comment on his story or Nahla Al-Arian's disputing it. But Ashley Allen, vice president of Sentinel corporate communications said, "We stand behind our reporters and their integrity and professionalism."

Staff writer Meg Laughlin can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or