ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The Justice Department may have hoodwinked a defendant in a high-profile terrorism case into thinking his plea bargain would protect him from further prosecutions, a federal judge said Monday.
Monday's hearing in U.S. District Court was the latest in which Judge Leonie Brinkema questioned the Justice Department's tactics in pursuing a criminal contempt case against former professor Sami Al-Arian, once accused of being a leading Palestinian terrorist.
Brinkema gave Al-Arian's lawyers 10 days to file papers seeking dismissal of the case on the grounds that prosecutors failed to keep promises made under the plea bargain. She acknowledged that the protections Al-Arian wants enforced may not have been explicitly outlined in the original agreement.
"But I think there's something more important here, and that's the integrity of the Justice Department," she said.
Defense lawyer Jonathan Turley said there is strong evidence prosecutors are ignoring the deal by prosecuting Al-Arian again.
Prosecutors have disputed any wrongdoing and said multiple judges have already rejected Al-Arian's claims. Prosecutor Gordon Kromberg said defense attorneys would have ensured the plea bargain unequivocally outlined such protections if they truly thought such protections were being offered.
Al-Arian, who taught computer science at the University of South Florida, had been under FBI surveillance since at least the mid-1990s. In 2003, federal prosecutors in Florida charged him with a being a leader of the radical Palestinian group Islamic Jihad.
After a six-month trial in 2005, a jury acquitted Al-Arian on many of the charges and deadlocked on others, with 10 of 12 favoring acquittal.
When prosecutors decided to retry him on the remaining charges, Al-Arian agreed to a plea bargain and admitted to conspiring to help Islamic Jihad, specifically by helping a family member with links to the group get immigration benefits and by lying to a reporter about another person's links to the group. He was sentenced to nearly five years in prison.
The exact terms of the plea bargain are now in dispute. Al-Arian contends that the agreement would have finally ended his dealings with the Justice Department, and that he was to be deported immediately after serving his prison time.
Al-Arian's lawyers have said they explicitly sought protection from prosecution in Virginia.
Prosecutors say that nothing in the plea deal, though, barred them from demanding Al-Arian's grand jury testimony. When Al-Arian refused to testify despite a grant of immunity, they charged him with criminal contempt.
Brinkema has sought explanations from prosecutors about their understanding of the plea bargain. Prosecutors have refused to discuss much of their internal deliberations, saying it is irrelevant. But they have acknowledged in court papers that Florida prosecutors opposed efforts to subpoena Al-Arian.
Brinkema has presided over several terrorism trials, and in recent years has frequently expressed frustration that the government has been untruthful in its dealings with her. She at one point threatened to toss out the government's death penalty case against Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, but later relented.