A federal judge yesterday lambasted a former Florida college professor, Sami Al-Arian, as a liar and "master manipulator," before sentencing him to nearly five years in prison for providing support to a Middle Eastern terrorist group, Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Under a plea deal finalized last month, Al-Arian, 48, agreed to admit guilt and accept a possible sentence of 46 to 57 months and eventual deportation from America. Prosecutors agreed to join defense attorneys in recommending a sentence at the low end of the range, but the judge, James Moody Jr., ignored those suggestions and imposed the maximum sentence allowed by the plea bargain.
Al-Arian has been in custody since he was accused of being the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in America and arrested in February 2003. A six-month trial overseen by Judge Moody last year resulted in Al-Arian's acquittal on eight charges against him and a hung jury on nine others. In a blow to the prosecution, none of the four defendants tried was convicted on any count and two of Al-Arian's co-defendants were acquitted outright.
The former University of South Florida professor's family and allies had hoped his guilty plea would lead to his speedy release and deportation, but the sentence imposed yesterday, when reduced by time served and other credits, means Al-Arian is likely to spend at least another year in jail before being handed over to immigration authorities.
At a court hearing yesterday morning, Judge Moody coupled the tough sentence with a stinging verbal rebuke of Al-Arian. The judge scoffed at many of the explanations and defenses Al-Arian has offered since news reports emerged in the mid-1990s alleging that the computer science professor and his Islamic studies think tank had ties to terrorism.
"You are a master manipulator. You looked your neighbors in the eyes and said you had nothing to do with Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This trial exposed that as a lie," Judge Moody said. "The evidence was clear in the this case that you were a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad."
When evidence emerged at the trial of Al-Arian's contacts with leaders of the terror group, his attorneys argued that he was involved solely in the group's nonviolent wing and that his fund-raising activities were charitable in nature.
Judge Moody also called that account "a lie." He noted that Al-Arian worked intensely to restructure Palestinian Islamic Jihad to preserve financial support from Iran. However, the judge said Al-Arian did nothing to oppose the group's terrorist acts and even laughed when discussing the suicide bombings in conversations secretly wiretapped by the FBI. "When it came to blowing up women and children, did you leap into action then?" Judge Moody asked rhetorically. "No. You lifted not one finger, made not one phone call."
Judge Moody faulted Al-Arian for condoning terrorist bombings in the Middle East, while raising his children comfortably in America. "Your children attend the finest universities this country had to offer while you raise money to blow up the children of others," the judge said.
In a brief statement to the court before the sentence was handed down, Al-Arian offered praise for America, the judicial system, the jury that heard his case, and his family. "As I leave, I harbor no bitterness or resentment," said Al-Arian, who was born to Palestinian Arab parents in Kuwait, raised in Egypt, and came to America as a high school student in 1975. "During my many years in America, I have tried to uphold the great values of my faith and culture and the honored ideals and principles of this society," he said, according to a transcript prepared by the St. Petersburg Times.
Judge Moody dismissed Al-Arian remarks. "I find it interesting that here in public in front of everyone you praise this country, the same country that in private you referred to as 'the great satan,'" the judge said.
According to witnesses, Al-Arian's wife, Nahla, rushed out of the courtroom in tears during the half-hour long hearing. Speaking to reporters later on the courthouse steps, she denounced the judge's sentence and his comments.
"This judge did not respect the jury and their decision. He, himself, as a judge, is working against the judicial system," she said, in remarks posted on the Web by a Tampa television station, WFTS.
A group of Al-Arian backers who were in the courtroom was stunned by the judge's verbal broadside. "That was shocking to hear that," a spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, Ahmed Bedier, said. "The judge's demeanor - he looked angry as he was delivering that, even his face was turning somewhat red."
Mr. Bedier said Judge Moody unfairly drew on evidence from the trial that was not stipulated to in Al-Arian's plea agreement. The judge faulted Al-Arian for writing a fund-raising letter to seek financial support for terrorist "operations," but Mr. Bedier noted that jurors found there was no conclusive evidence that Al-Arian ever sent the missive.
Mr. Bedier also said it was unfair to punish Al-Arian because he failed to condemn terrorism. "No one should support that. However, no one should pay the price for someone else's criminal acts. By not stopping it, not getting involved, that may not have been the moral thing to do but it's not violence in itself," the spokesman said.
A New Jersey man whose daughter was killed in a Palestinian Islamic Jihad bombing in Gaza in 1995 said yesterday that he was "pleasantly surprised" by Judge Moody's speech and Al-Arian's sentence.
"Al-Arian's supporters are going to have a hard time in my book talking this away," the victim's father, Stephen Flatow, said. The judge "has made it very difficult for all of those groups that have supported Al-Arian unquestioningly to walk away happy," Mr. Flatow said.
Mr. Flatow said he expected that the verdict would send a message to terrorism backers in America that "we're looking for you."
Judge Moody's stern condemnation of Al-Arian came as a surprise to some observers because some of the judge's rulings in the case were seen as favoring the defense. Prosecutors complained bitterly about one jury instruction that said the government could not win a conviction on key charges in the case unless it could prove that financial supporters of Palestinian Islamic Jihad knew their funds would be used for terrorism.
Judge Moody was appointed to the federal bench in 2000 by President Clinton. The judge received his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida and was a civil litigator before becoming a county judge in Florida in 1995.
During the marathon Al-Arian trial, Judge Moody was generally detached and terse, though he sometime directed sarcastic barbs at attorneys for both sides, particularly when he thought the proceedings were moving too slowly.