5 years later, Fla.-Va. terrorism case in limbo

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — For five years, a federal judge upset with the prosecution of a Florida professor once accused of being a leading terrorist has simply refused to rule on his case. It’s left the government unable to deport him, unable to prosecute him, and flummoxed on how to move forward.

In April 2009, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema told lawyers she would rule “soon” on whether to dismiss criminal contempt charges filed in Virginia against former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, a longtime prominent Palestinian activist, who refused to testify in a separate terror-related investigation.

The ruling hasn’t come, and nothing has happened in the case. The delay is unusual for Alexandria’s federal courthouse, known in legal circles as the Rocket Docket for its swift disposition of cases. Legal experts say they can’t think of a similar case elsewhere that has languished for so long.

On the surface at least, Al-Arian — who has declined to invoke his speedy trial rights — benefits from his silence and the standoff. If the Virginia case were dropped, Al-Arian, 56, born in Kuwait to Palestinian refugees before coming to the U.S. in 1975, would be deported under the terms of a Florida plea.

Al-Arian’s critics said he was a leader of one of the most ruthless terrorist groups in the world — the Palestinian Islamic Jihad — and that he used his position as a computer science professor as a base to quietly raise money for attacks. His supporters saw a man who was trapped by anti-Muslim hysteria, unfairly snared in a vague, amorphous web of guilt-by-association when his real goal was to help his native people in the Palestinian territories.

In 2003, federal prosecutors in Florida filed an indictment alleging Al-Arian was a leader of the terrorist group and complicit in the murder of innocent civilians. A jury acquitted him on numerous counts, and was hung on others. A mistrial was declared.

Pete White, a former prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia who is now a defense attorney, said it is rare for a criminal case to sit this long under these circumstances, especially in the Rocket Docket. There are no official statistics that document the rarity of a criminal case sitting in limbo for such a long time, but White and others said they could not think of a similar case, especially one that grew out of a terror-related investigation.

White said the only option prosecutors have to propel the case forward would be to file something called a writ of mandamus against Brinkema — basically asking another judge to order her to take action.