WASHINGTON, Dec. 13 (JTA) — Stephen Flatow is hoping for further legal action against the Florida professor acquitted of charges that he helped lead Islamic Jihad, the same terrorist organization that murdered his daughter. “I was frustrated he wasn’t convicted,” Flatow, a New Jersey attorney, said of Sami al-Arian. Jurors in a Tampa federal court last week acquitted the former University of South Florida engineering professor of eight charges relating to allegations that he helped lead the terrorist group. They also deadlocked on nine charges that he supported the group financially. Two other men who faced charges in the case were acquitted of all charges, and the jury acquitted a fourth man on some charges and deadlocked on others. Flatow, whose 20-year-old daughter, Alisa, was murdered in a 1995 Islamic Jihad attack on a bus in the Gaza Strip, said he asked his lawyers to see whether al-Arian could be tried under international or local Florida laws. Flatow, the chairman of the MetroWest New Jersey Jewish Relations Committee, is one of several Jewish organizational officials and lawyers hoping the case is not dead. The American Jewish Committee immediately called on the government to retry al-Arian. “We expect the government will move expeditiously to retry al-Arian on the nine remaining charges,” said David Harris, the AJCommittee’s executive director. Experts say the case against al-Arian was dogged by the remoteness of the crimes and the complexities of using evidence gathered abroad. But they say it should not affect efforts to pursue other individuals with alleged ties to terrorism. Flatow said he understood the difficulties the prosecutors faced. “It was a long trial, there were a lot of counts with four defendants, and there was a tremendous amount of evidence that had to be produced,” he said. However, he dismissed front-page reports in the New York Times and other newspapers that the case undermined the effectiveness of post-Sept. 11, 2001, legal reforms aimed at making it easier to prosecute terrorists. Those reforms, written into the USA Patriot Act of 2001, make it easier for U.S. spy agencies to share evidence with domestic prosecutors and law enforcement. Flatow, who had been interviewed by the FBI during its investigation of al-Arian, said the Patriot Act had little effect on the case because it began before the Sept. 11 attacks. The Patriot Act “made a couple of things easier, but the wheels were already turning.” Prosecutors in the federal court in Tampa tried to link al-Arian to Islamic Jihad attacks in a trial that lasted over five months and that plowed through 20,000 hours of tapped phone calls and hundreds of pages of faxes dating back to 1993. Prosecutors are still considering whether to retry al-Arian, although the government rarely retries deadlocked cases. The U.S. government could also deport Al-Arian, who is not a citizen. Al-Arian’s lawyers, who say he was guilty of nothing but supporting an unpopular cause and raising money for charitable work, are trying to get him released, pending a government decision on whether to retry the case. Alyza Lewin, a Washington lawyer, said the verdict would not affect the kind of civil lawsuits she has led against those who raise money for Palestinian terrorists. Lewin last year won a $156 million verdict against three charities and an individual on behalf of the family of David Boim, a 17-year-old Israeli killed in 1996 by Hamas terrorists. She described the distinction made famous in the O.J. Simpson case, where criminal prosecutors have to prove guilt beyond the shadow of a doubt, but civil plaintiffs have a much lower burden of proof. “If that were the kind of burden of proof I would have had to meet, I don’t know if I would have won,” she said. “We had the gunmen who confessed, who were associated with Hamas, we had the Holy Land Foundation whose assets were frozen based on evidence the U.S. had pulled together that they were knowingly supporting Hamas,” Lewis said. The Holy Land Foundation was one of the charities the Boims sued. “Can I show the Holy Land Foundation money went to buy the gun? No.” Lewin said her sense of the al-Arian case is that the government’s argument was substantial, and she called the verdict “discouraging.” However, she said establishing complicity in cases involving overseas terrorism is always difficult, because the government is denied the quality of evidence it would have in domestic cases. Lewin said, that from what she read of the case in press accounts, she believes al-Arian could still be liable in a civil case. Yehudit Barsky, the director of the AJCommittee’s division on the Middle East and International Terrorism, said her group believed al-Arian’s case was important because it would have expanded the legal definition of terrorism to embrace such recent legal concepts as racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy. Those are among charges on which the al-Arian jury deadlocked. Terrorism is not a discrete act, Barsky said, and convicting al-Arian would send a message that supporting terrorists is as criminal as carrying out any attacks. “It’s important to try and come to a resolution of these charges,” she said. However, she echoed Flatow’s sentiment that this was not a defeat for the Patriot Act or other anti-terrorist laws, even if the government decides not to pursue the case. She noted government victories in other cases, including against a group of northern Virginia men who had trained overseas with terrorist groups. “There are some things that are operative in the al-Arian case that might not be in other cases,” including the distance of the crimes committed. “Gaza is so far away, it’s hard to relate for jurors if it’s not in their neighborhood,” she said. “The factor of ‘This could have happened around the corner from me’ is just not there.”
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Ron Kampeas is JTA's Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.