BOISE, Idaho – A Saudi graduate student was acquitted Thursday of charges that he used his computer expertise to foster terrorism.
The case against Sami Omar Al-Hussayen (search), 34, was seen as an important test of a provision of the Patriot Act (search) that makes it a crime to provide expert advice or assistance to terrorists. First Amendment advocates called the verdict a victory for free speech.
Al-Hussayen, a computer science student at the University of Idaho (search), set up and ran Web sites that prosecutors say were used to recruit terrorists, raise money and disseminate inflammatory rhetoric.
His defense maintained that his association with the Web sites was as a Muslim volunteer and computer expert who simply wanted to keep the sites in operation.
Al-Hussayen's attorneys have argued that he had little to do with the creation of the material posted. And they say the material was protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of expression and was not designed to raise money or recruit militants.
"It was hard to imagine how they could have convicted on the terrorism charges in light of the First Amendment," said Jack Van Valkenburgh, director of the Idaho chapter of the ACLU. "What I heard from prosecution were only allegations of constitutionally protected speech, so I'm relieved."
Prosecutors said he turned Web sites of the Islamic Assembly of North America (search) into an Internet network providing information to foster terrorism, particularly in the Middle East and Chechnya.
They cited religious edicts justifying suicide bombings and an invitation to financially support the militant Palestinian organization Hamas (search) in arguing that Al-Hussayen should be convicted.
Al-Hussayen was acquitted on all three terrorism counts, as well as one count of making a false statement and two counts of visa fraud. Jurors could not reach verdicts on three more false statement counts and five additional visa fraud counts, and a mistrial was declared on those charges.
He faced up to 15 years for each of three terrorism charges, 25 years on each visa fraud charge and 5 years on each false statement charge.
The jury reached its verdict after seven days of deliberations and a trial that lasted seven weeks.
Al-Hussayen had appeared confident throughout the day, but had no visible reaction as the verdicts were read.
"What he said to me was, 'Calm down, it's going to be OK,"' Al-Hussayen's lead defense attorney, David Nevin, told a reporter just after the verdict was read.
He faced deportation regardless of the trial's outcome. His wife and their children returned to Saudi Arabia earlier this year rather than fight deportation.
Al-Hussayen, a member of a prominent family from Riyadh, has been jailed since his February 2003 arrest, continuing to work toward his doctorate from his cell.
John Dickinson, a University of Idaho professor who served as Al-Hussayen's academic adviser, said he hopes the acquittal "puts an end to a long and terrible aspect of Sami's life, and I hope he will be reunited with his wife and three children."