A former Florida professor who had pleaded guilty to aiding a terror organization was indicted yesterday on criminal charges that he refused to testify before a grand jury investigating whether Islamic charities in Northern Virginia were financing terrorists.
The indictment of Sami al-Arian triggered outrage from his family and Muslim groups that have mounted a national campaign to secure his release from prison. Arian had already been jailed for a year on civil contempt charges. Legal experts said it is rare for the government to then add criminal counts.
"This is a really dirty game the government is playing," said Arian's daughter, Laila. "They've already put him through enough. Enough is enough. This will have repercussions in the American Muslim community and throughout the world."
Arian was accused in Tampa in 2003 of conspiracy to commit racketeering and murder and to aid the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, but his trial ended two years later in an acquittal on some charges and a mistrial on others. He later pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy in one of the nation's highest-profile terrorism cases. He was sentenced to 57 months in prison, which he finished serving in April. He was expected to be deported, but prosecutors in Alexandria are seeking his testimony.
He was charged again yesterday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria with two counts of criminal contempt. He could face additional jail time if convicted, but there is no maximum or minimum penalty.
Federal prosecutors declined to comment, citing the Justice Department's policy of not commenting on grand jury matters.
Lawrence Barcella, a former federal prosecutor who is now a Washington lawyer, said civil contempt is generally used to compel people to testify in investigations, and criminal contempt is designed to punish them if they have refused. He said it is "not unheard of but very unique" to seek criminal charges when a defendant has already served time for civil contempt.
"Given everything that al-Arian has gone through, you've got to figure that he's not going to fold," Barcella said.
Prosecutors in Alexandria want Arian to reveal what they think are his ties to the International Institute of Islamic Thought, or IIIT, a Herndon think tank that is one of the key organizations under investigation, according to Arian's lawyers and court documents. The six-year-old probe, which federal officials have called the nation's largest terrorism-financing investigation, is focused on a Herndon-based network of Muslim charities, businesses and think tanks. They have denied any terrorist ties.
The Northern Virginia investigation burst into public view in March 2002, when federal agents raided homes and businesses in Herndon and elsewhere in the region. Muslim groups have labeled the probe a fishing expedition, but law enforcement officials have defended it as highly complicated, involving a complex trail of international transactions among corporations and charitable entities.
Arian, who taught computer science at the University of South Florida, twice refused to testify before the grand jury in Alexandria, on Oct. 16, 2007, and on March 20, according to yesterday's two-page indictment. His daughter said that he views it "as a matter of conscience" and that "he has nothing to offer."
Arian's attorney, Jonathan Turley, said his client has given prosecutors two detailed affidavits saying that he knows of no criminal activity involving IIIT and that the government has acknowledged he is a "minor witness." Turley said the indictment "is a continuation of a long campaign of abuse that has drawn international criticism."
After Arian was found guilty of civil contempt by a federal judge in Alexandria in 2006, he drew the strong backing of Muslim organizations, which held a news conference at Justice Department headquarters in Washington and called for a worldwide fast in support. Arian has gone on at least two hunger strikes in prison.
Ahmed Rehab, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, called yesterday's indictment a "ludicrous decision" that is "growing evidence that the kangaroo prosecution of Professor Al-Arian in fact extends beyond the pursuit of justice and into the realm of vindictive political persecution."