Defense: Fla. Terror Defendants Wanted Mideast Peace

Attorneys for three terrorism defendants told jurors Tuesday that the men were never associated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (search) and had innocent explanations for comments that were wiretapped by investigators.

Federal prosecutors say Sameeh Hammoudeh (search), Ghassan Zayed Ballut (search), Hatem Naji Fariz (search) and their co-defendant, Sami Al-Arian (search), a fired University of South Florida professor, worked to raise money in the United States to further the goals of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The group, listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department, is blamed for more than 100 deaths in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

But in opening statements Tuesday, lawyers for the three men being tried along with Al-Arian painted them as family men who supported the Middle East peace process and were dedicated to providing legitimate charity to the needy in Palestinian territories.

Al-Arian's attorneys and prosecutors had presented their opening statements Monday.

Defense lawyers maintain prosecutors will be able to provide no evidence directly tying the men to the terrorist group or any criminal activity. And they said there are reasonable explanations for evidence offered by prosecutors, including the wiretapped phone calls.

"It's the interpretation of these circumstances that becomes critical during this trial," Hammoudeh's attorney, Stephen Bernstein, told jurors.

Al-Arian, 47, and the others face a 53-count indictment that includes charges of providing material support to terrorists, racketeering and conspiracy. The trial in federal court in Tampa is expected to last at least six months. Five other men have been indicted but have not been arrested.

On Monday, federal prosecutor Walter E. Furr III characterized Al-Arian as one of the most powerful figures in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which he described as "an armed, criminal group of violent thugs."

He said the co-defendants worked alongside him to support terror bombings in Israel and Palestinian territories, using an academic think tank and a Tampa charity founded by Al-Arian as fundraising fronts.

Al-Arian's attorney, William Moffitt, characterized his client Monday as a scholar and political activist who spoke out with strong words against Israel but committed no crimes. Al-Arian, Moffitt said, is being targeted because his views are largely unpopular.

Hammoudeh, 44, is a former graduate student at USF and an administrator at the Islamic Academy of Florida founded by Al-Arian. Fariz, 32, managed a medical clinic in Spring Hill, while Ballut, 43, is a small business owner from the Chicago area.

The government built its case around wiretapped telephone calls and faxes beginning in late 1993 or early 1994, Furr told jurors. Conversations, faxes, financial transactions and other evidence would solidly link the defendants to the PIJ and terror attacks, Furr said.

But defense attorneys disagreed, saying once jurors learn about the circumstantial nature of the evidence, they will conclude that the men had no criminal associations.

"This case is about people," said Fariz's attorney, Kevin Beck. "It's about getting to the truth, and months from now I think we'll get there."