The trial of a former Florida professor once accused of being a leading Palestinian terrorist was postponed Friday after a judge raised new doubts about whether prosecutors have been overzealous.
Former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian had been scheduled to go on trial next week in U.S. District Court for criminal contempt after refusing to testify to a federal grand jury about a cluster of Muslim organizations in northern Virginia.
But U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema postponed the trial indefinitely, questioning whether the government was overeager in filing charges. She also questioned whether prosecutors had properly filled out the paperwork demanding Al-Arian's grand jury testimony.
She said the government was premature in seeking contempt charges while Al-Arian has a pending appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the terms of a plea agreement he struck in a previous trial exempt him from testifying.
Prosecutors responded that Al-Arian's claim has been rejected by two appellate courts and that Brinkema's ruling could have long-term implications in compelling people to comply with court orders.
Prosecutor Gordon Kromberg said that if a person can refuse to testify until the U.S. Supreme Court requires them to, the effect will be "undercutting the court's ability to get anyone to obey its orders."
Any delay in Al-Arian's trial is significant because the government wants to try to convict him before he is deported to Egypt. Al-Arian, who is in the custody of immigration authorities, is subject to a deportation order and has been pushing them to either release him or deport him immediately.
Friday's hearing was not the first time that Brinkema has questioned the government's decision to prosecute Al-Arian for contempt. She previously suggested that the contempt case runs against a promise by the Justice Department that it would not stand in the way of Al-Arian's deportation.
Al-Arian was a Palestinian activist and computer professor at the University of South Florida when he was charged in 2003 with being a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a designated terrorist group linked to Iran.
After a six-month trial, a jury in Florida acquitted Al-Arian on many charges and deadlocked on others. When prosecutors pursued a retrial, Al-Arian struck a plea bargain and pleaded guilty to conspiring to aid the PIJ 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 PIJ.
While he was serving his sentence in the Florida case, federal prosecutors in Virginia demanded his testimony.
On Friday, Brinkema warned both sides to cool their rhetoric.
The warning comes after former U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel, spoke at an Aug. 1 rally of Al-Arian supporters, suggested pressuring Kromberg, saying "find out where he lives, find out where his kids go to school."
Al-Arian's family repudiated the comments.
Meanwhile, defense lawyer Jonathan Turley has accused Kromberg of bias against Muslims. On Friday, Kromberg objected to a court order that would release Al-Arian to his daughter's custody to await trial, arguing that she would be unable to exert any authority over Al-Arian "in this particular culture," an apparent reference to the family's religion.