ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A trial date has been set for August 13th in the case of Sami Al-Arian, who is charged with criminal contempt in a two count indictment for refusing to testify before grand juries investigating Islamic charities with suspected ties to terrorism. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema said she expected a "straightforward" trial that would last one day, but Al-Arian's attorney, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, indicated that he would continue to challenge the indictment and suggested the trial may be more complicated.
The indictment charges Al-Arian with refusing to testify when called before federal grand juries Oct. 16, 2007 and March 20, 2008 despite a grant of immunity from the prosecution.
After the arraignment Turley spelled out his planned defense on his blog, writing:
In court, I informed Judge Brinkema that we believed that the indictment was invalid on its face. Among other problems, Dr. Al-Arian did not refuse to cooperate. Dr. Al-Arian had given two detailed affidavits that established that he had no knowledge of any crime by IIIT or its officers. He further offered repeatedly to take a polygraph examination to prove that he had given a truthful account and was not withholding information.
Even if that turns out to be true, Al-Arian is not charged with "failure to cooperate," but criminal contempt for refusing to testify before the grand jury, which two federal appellate courts have held he had an obligation to do.
Although Al-Arian's defense claimed today that their client was not prepared to enter a plea, Judge Brinkema proceeded to enter a plea of not guilty on Al-Arian's behalf.
Judge Brinkema agreed to consider releasing Al-Arian on bond pending trial, but deferred her ruling until she can hear from pretrial services about how best to ensure Al-Arian's supervision during his release.
"There is no compelling reason to hold Dr. Al-Arian who is not facing any terrorism charge," Turley argued on his website. "While the government has claimed that he is a flight risk, it is absurd to suggest that he would flee."
But Al-Arian may not be able to walk out of jail even if Brinkema orders a pretrial bond. A detainer by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Service of the Department of Homeland Security would likely trump any bond order.
Al-Arian was charged in 2003 with conspiring to provide material support to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) a designated terrorist group. It took two years to bring the case before a jury, and Al-Arian was held without bond during that time.
Jurors in Tampa acquitted Al-Arian on eight of the 17 counts against him and could not reach unanimous verdicts on the others, including racketeering conspiracy. In April 2006, Al-Arian agreed to plead guilty to one of those hung counts – conspiracy to provide goods and services to a terrorist group. U.S. District Judge James Moody sentenced Al-Arian on that count to 57 months in prison - the maximum allowed under the plea deal.
In Al-Arian's 2006 plea agreement, he admits to being associated with the PIJ and that he "performed services for the PIJ in 1995 and thereafter." The agreement also states that "Defendant Al-Arian was aware that the PIJ achieved its objectives by, among other means, acts of violence."
If convicted of criminal contempt, Al-Arian could be looking at a lengthy prison term. Sentencing guidelines allow for steep increases in time when the obstruction is connected to a terrorism investigation.