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Ex-professor pleads guilty in Florida Jihad case

By Staff
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TAMPA, Fla., Apr 17 (Reuters) Former Florida university professor Sami al-Arian has pleaded guilty to aiding the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad and agreed to be deported, US officials said today.

Al-Arian and three co-defendants were charged in 2003 with helping the group carry out attacks in Israel. In December, a federal jury in Tampa found al-Arian not guilty on eight charges and failed to reach a verdict on nine others after a six-month trial.

Prosecutors, whose failure to convict al-Arian after the jury trial was seen as a stiff blow to the US government's attempts to prosecute terrorism suspects, hailed the plea bargain agreement as a victory.

''Al-Arian has now admitted providing assistance to help the Palestinian Islamic Jihad ... as the government has alleged from the start,'' Assistant US Attorney General Alice Fisher said in a written statement.

The United States has designated Islamic Jihad a terrorist organization. When the charges against al-Arian and the others were made public three years ago, then-US Attorney General John Ashcroft said the group was responsible for over 100 deaths in Israel, including two Americans.

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed nine people and wounded 60 outside a restaurant in Tel Aviv today.

Al-Arian pleaded guilty in a closed hearing before a US magistrate in Tampa on Friday, US officials said. The agreement averts another trial on the deadlocked charges.

The former University of South Florida professor admitted that he ''... conspired to make and receive contributions of funds, goods and services to or for the benefit of specially designated terrorists,'' according to court documents.

The remaining eight counts against him will be dismissed under the plea agreement.

SENTENCING NEXT MONTH US District Judge James Moody accepted the plea today and scheduled sentencing for May 1. The agreement calls for 46 to 57 months in prison but al-Arian will probably get credit for the three years he has already spent in jail since his arrest.

It was not clear when al-Arian, 48, will be deported or where he will go.

He was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents and grew up in Egypt before coming to the United States. He is married with five children, who were all born in the United States, making them American citizens.

The case against al-Arian and the others was based largely on thousands of hours of wiretapped phone calls, intercepted e-mails, faxes and bank records gathered over a decade. It was considered a key test of the government's surveillance powers, which were strengthened by the USA Patriot Act.

Co-defendants Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Ballut were found not guilty on all charges in December. Hatam Fariz was acquitted on 25 of the 33 charges against him.

Hammoudeh is awaiting deportation on fraud charges and Ballut has returned to Chicago. Fariz is scheduled to go to trial in August on the remaining charges.

While he was at the university, al-Arian founded the World and Islamic Studies Enterprise in Tampa, a pro-Palestinian group. He was fired by the university after his arrest.

REUTERS PDS PM0337

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