Religion News Services: Muslim Leaders Praise Acquittal of High-Profile Professor

Calling it a blow against the guilt-by-association mentality that has dogged the Islamic community since Sept. 11, Muslim leaders are celebrating the acquittal of a Florida professor accused of assisting a violent Palestinian group. Jewish groups, however, expressed disappointment.

Sami Al-Arian, a high-profile professor fired from his tenured position at the University of Southern Florida in 2003, was cleared Tuesday of eight criminal counts, including terrorist support, while the jury was deadlocked on the remaining nine counts.

"The jurors were able to put their biases aside and look at the case based on evidence, rather than emotion -- something that has been hard to do in the post-9/11 climate," said Ahmed Bedier, director of the Council on American Islamic Relations' Central Florida office.

David Cole, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, also praised the jury for "showing fealty" to the First Amendment right to free speech.

"The prosecution pursued a sweeping guilt-by-association theory, seeking to try Al-Arian for the crimes of the Palestine Islamic Jihad, without offering any evidence that he sought to further any of its illegal acts," said Cole, a critic of the Patriot Act, the law that allowed for submission of secretly gathered evidence in the trial.

Muslim leaders, however, distanced themselves from Al-Arian's fiery rhetoric from the 1990s, when he described Jews as "pigs and monkeys" and said "Death to Israel." Al-Arian has said that he does not support the killing of any civilian.

"He made comments that I would disagree with, but those comments were not illegal," saidAhmed Rehab, director of communications for the Council on American Islamic Relations' Chicago office.

Art Teitelbaum, the Miami-based Southern area director of the Anti-Defamation League, said his group was "disappointed" by the verdict.

"We are not in a position to second-guess the jury, but whether Professor Arian is guilty or not, there's no question that he has applauded terrorism as a legitimate device, and that makes him morally corrupt," said Marc Stern, assistant executive director of the American Jewish Congress in New York.

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