ALEXANDRIA,Va. – A federal judge has agreed to release Sami Al-Arian on bond while he awaits his August trial date for criminal contempt. But it remains uncertain whether the convicted terrorist will be released from custody.
Al-Arian has been ordered deported as part of his 2006 guilty plea for conspiring to provide goods and services to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. A 90-day removal period began June 27, argued federal prosecutor Gordon Kromberg, meaning Al-Arian cannot be released before the end of September.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema acknowledged that she may not have the power to force the government to release Al-Arian pending his August 13 trial. She emphasized that his plea agreement included a pledge from the government to expedite his removal from the United States after completing his criminal sentence.
However, the judge acknowledged having no authority over the immigration process. Pre-Trial Services staff did not recommend Al-Arian's release after a review of the case, Brinkema said. She assumed that was because Al Arian pled guilty to a "serious offense."
Al-Arian faces two counts of criminal contempt for his refusal to testify before federal grand juries investigating terror financing by a northern Virginia think tank, the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), with which he had worked closely. Prosecutors granted him immunity in exchange for his truthful testimony and his defiance triggered two civil contempt orders.
Al-Arian argues that his plea agreement ruled out what he calls cooperation with the government. But there is no such language in the plea agreement or at his plea hearing in Tampa. The 4th and 11th Circuit Courts of Appeal have rejected this argument and the U.S. Supreme Court last year declined to take up the case.
If he is released, he must post $340,000, the value of his State of Florida pension from his days as a tenured University of South Florida engineering professor. He would stay with his son Abdullah, who lives in the Northern Virginia area, and would be subject to GPS monitoring. He would only be allowed to leave the house for medical treatment.
According to attorney Jonathan Turley, the Egyptian government has expressed its willingness to accept Al-Arian after he is deported. In his plea agreement, the government pledged to expedite his removal after his sentence was complete. Brinkema said the Justice Department must live up to its agreements and not discourage Egypt from taking Al Arian.
Turley has challenged the case's validity, claiming Al-Arian has submitted sworn statements indicating he knows of no criminal activity by the IIIT think tank. He also has offered to take a polygraph test, Turley said. And Kromberg previously called Al-Arian an "insignificant witness," Turley said.
Kromberg countered that he said Al Arian was a "small part of a bigger investigation," but that it was clear from the IIIT investigation that Al Arian was deeply involved. Al Arian answered some questions but has refused to answer questions about PIJ, PIJ financing, his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and his relationship with the Brotherhood in Northern Virginia, Kromberg told Brinkema. Someone subpoenaed by a grand jury cannot choose the questions he wants to answer and how he wants to answer them, Kromberg said.
Al-Arian's appeal for bond included 60 pages of letters from supporters of his, including three university professors who had worked with his think tank, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE):
John Esposito, director of Georgetown University's Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, told Brinkema he has known Al-Arian for 20 years and saw him as "a man of conscience with a strong commitment to peace and social justice." Esposito described WISE as "a think-tank that brought together prominent scholars and experts from academia, the U.S. government and the media."
Esposito's Georgetown colleague, John Voll, wrote of Al-Arian's "devotion to his family," and that he has "gotten to know [Al-Arian] through his children," concluding that "it is highly improbable that [Al-Arian] would break the trust involved in being released on bond." Voll, the dissertation mentor of Al-Arian's son, Abdullah - currently a doctoral student at Georgetown - noted that Abdullah "will be teaching a course in the History Department curriculum this coming fall semester."
University of Maryland professor Charles Butterworth wrote to Brinkema that he held WISE "in high esteem, especially because of Sami Al-Arian's excellent management of it."
In fact, WISE was home to four members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) governing board, including Al-Arian, current PIJ leader Ramadan Shallah, Basheer Nafi and Mazen Al-Najjar. While it did produce academic work, it also received funding from PIJ accounts in addition to substantial financial support from the think-tank that is now targeted by the Virginia grand jury.