Case against Sami Al-Arian dropped, clearing way for deportation

Sami Al-Arian had taught computer science at USF.
Sami Al-Arian had taught computer science at USF.
Published June 28, 2014

A criminal contempt indictment against former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian was dropped Friday, clearing the way for his deportation after over a decade of being targeted by the U.S. Justice Department.

Defense attorney Jonathan Turley wrote that the Al-Arian family has endured a "grinding, unrelenting litigation saga." A family statement said it was "relieved that this ordeal finally appears to be at an end.

Al-Arian, the son of Palestinian refugees, was born in Kuwait and came to the United States in 1975. In 1986, he and his family came from North Carolina so he could teach computer science at USF. He founded a Muslim school and co-founded the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, a think tank on Middle Eastern topics at USF.

In 2003, federal prosecutors in Tampa filed an indictment alleging he was a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and complicit in the murder of civilians.

Al-Arian ended up taking a plea deal on greatly reduced charges after a federal jury in Tampa did not convict him following a lengthy trial.

He agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges, followed by a recommendation for time served and immediate deportation — possibly to Egypt, where he lived before he came to the United States.

Specifically, he admitted to conspiring to aid the PIJ by helping a relative with links to the group get immigration benefits.

But instead of Al-Arian being expelled, the legal drama continued when prosecutors in Alexandria, Va., sought his testimony in a separate investigation there.

He refused, saying he had carefully negotiated the Florida plea deal to exclude the usual requirement to cooperate with government investigations. But appellate courts ruled that prosecutors were within their rights to subpoena Al-Arian in the new case.

They sought his testimony in a long-running, terror-related grand jury investigation focusing on a Herndon, Va.,-based organization called the International Institute of Islamic Thought, which was raided by the FBI in 2002 and had provided funding to the think tank Al-Arian founded.

In 2008, prosecutors in Virginia filed criminal contempt charges against him for his refusal to testify about that despite a grant of immunity.

His attorney said Al-Arian passed a polygraph test showing he could offer nothing to the grand jury.

For the past five years, the criminal contempt case against him has sat dormant.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema questioned the government's tactics and wondered whether prosecutors were violating the spirit, if not the letter, of Al-Arian's plea deal in Tampa.

In 2009, she told lawyers she would rule "soon" on pretrial motions that needed to be resolved for the case to go forward. But without explanation, she refused to rule on them.

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The only substantive action she took on the case was to liberalize the conditions of Al-Arian's pretrial detention. For several years, he had essentially been on home arrest, living there with his family. Last year, she modified the conditions so that Al-Arian was free to leave the home under GPS monitoring as long as he met a curfew.

As a result of the legal limbo, prosecutors were unable to pursue the contempt case and the government was unable to deport him.

The limbo is a rarity in criminal cases and even more unusual in the Eastern District of Virginia, known as the "Rocket Docket" for its swift disposition of cases.

Prosecutors said Friday that dropping the case will likely result in Al-Arian's deportation.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg noted in the motion to dismiss that the government had prodded Brinkema in 2010 to rule on pretrial matters so the case could proceed, one way or another.

"The United States reaffirms the evaluations of the merit of the prosecution that were made in 2008 and again in 2010. Nevertheless, in light of the passage of time without resolution, the United States has decided that the best available course of action is to move to dismiss the indictment so that action can be taken to remove the defendant from the United States," Kromberg wrote.

Prosecutors' only other option for pushing the case forward would have been to pursue a writ against Brinkema in front of another judge; this would have proved awkward given that prosecutors appear before Brinkema on hundreds of matters a year.

In a three-paragraph order, a different judge, U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga, dismissed the indictment Friday.