BOISE, Idaho – A Saudi graduate student accused of setting up Web sites to help Islamic militants recruit followers went on trial Tuesday in a key test of a Patriot Act (search) provision that bars the giving of expert advice to terrorist groups.
A jury of eight women and four men was seated to hear the case against Sami Omar Al-Hussayen (search), a 34-year-old University of Idaho (search) student working on his doctorate in computer science. He is charged with three counts of aiding terrorism. He is also charged with visa fraud and making false statements.
U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge questioned potential jurors earlier Tuesday about their knowledge of Islam and religious conflicts in the Middle East and Chechnya, as well as their feelings about terrorism.
Opening statements were scheduled to begin Wednesday.
Al-Hussayen is accused of helping to run Web sites that supported the militant Palestinian organization Hamas (search) and other groups allegedly promoting terrorism.
Federal prosecutors said he provided "material support" to terrorists, a crime that was expanded under the Patriot Act — the federal terrorism law passed after Sept. 11 — to include "expert advice or assistance."
Al-Hussayen was arrested at his home on Feb. 26, 2003, and has gotten strong support from students and faculty on the Moscow campus, where he had a reputation as a positive leader of the small Islamic community. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he marched in a peace rally, donated blood and worked to educate local residents about Islam.
Al-Hussayen's lawyer has said that while his client set up the Web sites, any statements made on those sites supporting terrorism were not his, and he has been unfairly blamed for the words of others.
The case has been seen as a test of the portion of the Patriot Act that prohibits providing expert advice or assistance to terrorist groups — a provision that critics say can snare people who may inadvertently provide assistance because of their special skills.
"We have a law that is shaky at best, and my feeling is that Sami is going to be the test case in this," said Rand Lewis, director of the Martin Institute for Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution (search) and the Martin School of International Affairs (search) at the University of Idaho.
But federal prosecutors said that in addition to running Web sites and e-mail groups for would-be terrorists, Al-Hussayen maintained bank accounts to funnel cash to another group with terrorist connections.
He is also charged with 11 counts of visa fraud and four counts of making false statements to cover up his alleged links to terrorists.
Al-Hussayen has been jailed since his arrest. His wife and three children returned to Saudi Arabia in January rather than fight deportation.
The terrorism counts are punishable by up to 15 years each, the visa fraud charges by up to 25 years each and the false-statement counts by five years each.
The trial is expected to last six weeks.