updated 6/6/2005 9:45:50 PM ET 2005-06-07T01:45:50

A former professor at a Florida university was a fund-raising powerhouse in a pro-Palestinian terrorist cell blamed for scores of suicide attacks in Israel, a prosecutor said Monday as the man’s trial began.

Sami Al-Arian was at one time “the most powerful man in the world” in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, federal prosecutor Walter E. Furr III told jurors in his opening statement.

Furr described how the 47-year-old Al-Arian and three co-defendants were allegedly involved in soliciting financial support for families of suicide bombers, getting money to PIJ headquarters in Syria and spreading word that the PIJ was responsible for attacks.

“These are the managers. These are the guys who ran the organization,” Furr said. He described the defendants and other key PIJ figures as “an elitist group of intellectuals” far above those who strapped on bombs and carried out the attacks.

Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida computer science instructor who was fired after his arrest, has been in jail more than two years. He shook his head from side to side at times as Furr spoke. Relatives watched from the courtroom gallery, and supporters staged a lunchtime rally outside the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa.

Defense builds free-speech argument
In his opening statement, Al-Arian’s attorney, William Moffitt, characterized him as a scholar and political activist who spoke out with strong words against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories — but committed no crimes.

“The evidence will show that this case is about Dr. Al-Arian’s right to speak, your right to hear him and the attempt of the powerful to silence him,” Moffitt told jurors.

The trial resumes Tuesday with opening statements from the other three defense attorneys.

Al-Arian and the three co-defendants — Sameeh Hammoudeh, Ghassan Zayed Ballut and Hatem Naji Fariz — face a 53-count indictment that includes charges of providing material support to terrorists, racketeering and conspiracy. Five other men have been indicted but have not been arrested. The trial is expected to last six months.

Prosecutors: Think tank was terrorist front
Prosecutors allege the men used an Islamic academic think tank and a Palestinian charity founded by Al-Arian in Tampa as fund-raising fronts for the PIJ, which is on a State Department list of terrorist organizations. Furr described them as “an armed, criminal group of violent thugs” opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and committed to disrupting the peace process.

Furr described how Al-Arian, as secretary of the PIJ, was a key figure in a “terror cycle” perpetrated by the group. He said PIJ members targeted Israelis in deadly suicide bombings and bragged about them to raise money for more attacks.

“They were pure PIJ,” Furr said of Al-Arian and co-defendants.

The defendants have denied the charges, saying that they are being persecuted for their unpopular pro-Palestinian views. Each could get life in prison if convicted.

Hammoudeh, 44, is a former instructor and student at the school and an administrator at the Islamic Academy of Florida, which was founded by Al-Arian. Fariz, 32, managed a medical clinic in Spring Hill, and Ballut, 43, is a small business owner from Tinley Park, Ill.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments