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Closing Arguments Begin in Florida Terrorism Trial

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Closing arguments began today in the trial of a former University of South Florida professor. Sami Al-Arian and three co-defendants are accused of conspiring to provide support for Palestinian Islamic Jihad. That's an organization the US government has designated a terrorist group. Dr. Al-Arian is accused of being the front man for Islamic Jihad in the US, and he's charged with funneling money to the group through various organizations he set up at his former university. NPR's Phillip Davis was in the courtroom in Tampa today and joins us now.

And, Phillip, this trial has been going on for five months now in federal court. How did the prosecution sum up its case today?

PHILLIP DAVIS reporting:

Well, the prosecution has asked for about 10 hours of closing arguments to sum up their case, which gives you a little bit of an idea of how complex this case is. Jurors have not only heard about Sami Al-Arian and his three other defendants but also about just a welter of other names, places and organizations. What the prosecution wants to do is put Al-Arian in the middle of a vast, like, international terrorist organization called Palestinian Islamic Jihad that has had tendrils in several other countries, including Israel and Iran and was spreading into the US, thanks to people like Sami Al-Arian.

BLOCK: Now he's not accused of actually committing the violent acts himself. To get a conviction, what does the government need to prove in this case?

DAVIS: Well, there's a couple things that the government needs to do in these closing days of the trial. First of all, there are two concepts that they hope to put across to the jury: One is the concept of intent, and the other is the concept of co-conspirator liability. As the prosecution puts it, it's kind of common sense. If you support a terrorist organization, you're supporting a terrorist organization.

What the defense, Sami Al-Arian, has been arguing is that his organizations have been funneling money into charitable organizations linked with Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The prosecutors are trying to say there's no such division of labor; that if you are supporting this organization, you know that it has been involved in hundreds of deaths and bombings and suicide bombings over the past decade and a half and that there's no meaningful separation between giving money to this organization's charitable arm and its so-called military wing.

BLOCK: I understand there was some videotape that was introduced as evidence. Talk about that a bit and the other evidence that the government has introduced here.

DAVIS: Well, that's what the government has been doing because most of this evidence, of course, is going to be circumstantial. You're not going to get any of the defendants to come right out and say they knew that they were supporting a terrorist organization. One video clip that the prosecution showed that was particularly interesting was, in 1991, Al-Arian went to a meeting at a mosque in Cleveland, Ohio, and the imam there called Al-Arian's Islamic Committee on Palestine, which is one of the groups he formed here at the University of South--he called the Islamic Committee on Palestine the `active arm of Palestinian jihad in the US.' And he went on to say, `We're just calling it Islamic Committee on Palestine just for security reasons.' And then he went on to solicit people in the audience to give money to Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

BLOCK: Phillip, very briefly, Al-Arian, as I understand it, called no witnesses, or his lawyer called no witnesses. What is the defense case here?

DAVIS: It was very unusual. They rested their case without bringing forth any witnesses or anyone like that last week. Their case is basically that in the United States, Al-Arian has the right, under the First Amendment, to associate with and to say whatever he wishes, as long as it does not lead to violence. And they say that the prosecution has not shown that Al-Arian has been linked to any violent activities.

BLOCK: Phillip, thanks very much.

DAVIS: Thank you.

BLOCK: NPR's Phillip Davis in Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Phillip Davis
Correspondent Phillip Davis covers South Florida and beyond for NPR. He joined NPR in January 1993, and has reported on such topics as the Elian Gonzalez affair, the disputed 2000 presidential election, and the growing cultural diversity of South Florida. Davis has also filed reports from England, West Africa, and South America for NPR. His pieces can be heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and All Things Considered.