ALEXANDRIA, VA -- The federal judge hearing a criminal contempt case against Sami Al-Arian asked government prosecutors for more information Thursday about the terms of a disputed plea agreement Al-Arian signed in 2006 admitting support for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terrorist group.
Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted a request by Al-Arian for the information. But she said she didn't believe her new order should delay Al-Arian's scheduled March 9 trial on contempt of court charges.
"I don't mean to open up a whole fishing expedition," Brinkema said.
Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor, was charged with criminal contempt of court last June after refusing to testify before a grand jury in Virginia investigating terrorism financing allegations.
Al-Arian argues that the 2006 plea agreement he reached with prosecutors in Florida exempts him from further testimony about matters involving PIJ, despite a government grant of immunity from prosecution.
Al-Arian negotiated that agreement with prosecutors to avoid a re-trial on terrorism support charges. A Florida jury in 2005 had acquitted him on eight counts and failed to reach agreement on nine other counts. His attorneys claim that, as part of the plea negotiation, prosecutors granted Al-Arian's request to strike language from the agreement that he would cooperate with government investigators.
But the government argues that nothing in the agreement exempts him from testifying in other related cases.
Al-Arian's argument was already rejected by district court judges in Florida and Virginia, as well as the 4th and 11th circuit courts of appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court has twice turned down Al-Arian's request to hear his appeals, most recently in October.
The judge, however, said she needs more evidence on the record about the Florida prosecutors' own understanding of the terms of the plea agreement.
"There is, in my view, a sufficient cloud as to what was the clear understanding of the parties," Brinkema said. She asked the government prosecutors who had been involved in the plea negotiations to submit affidavits explaining their understanding of the terms.
"This is now a criminal case. It's a different ball game." Brinkema added. Obtaining a "crystal clear" understanding of what prosecutors and Al-Arian agreed to in 2006 "is now relevant not just to culpability, but to sentencing" if he were convicted of contempt, she said.
The Virginia grand jury that Al-Arian has refused to appear before was investigating a Herndon, Va.-based think tank, the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), and its suspected financing of terrorism support networks. IIIT gave money to a PIJ-related think tank in Tampa that Al-Arian once ran. During the mid 1990s, this think tank employed several PIJ members, the government said, including Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, who left Tampa in 1995 for Syria to assume leadership of PIJ. The PIJ affiliations of Shallah and others were acknowledged by Al-Arian in his plea agreement.
Al-Arian's refusal to testify resulted in a previous civil contempt citation against him, which was lifted in December 2007. He completed a 57-month prison sentence in April 2008, and is supposed to be deported if he is not convicted of the current criminal contempt charges against him.