US court clears professor of terrorism

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The Independent US

In a major defeat for the federal government, a Florida jury last night acquitted a Palestinian professor on charges of leading a terrorist group that carried out suicide bombings in Israel. Three of his co-defendants were also cleared of dozens of related charges.

The five-month trial in Tampa has been seen as a key test for the controversial Patriot Act passed by Congress soon after the 9/11 attacks, which allowed prosecutors to use wiretaps, financial records, and other intrusive techniques.

Instead Sami al-Arian, who taught computer engineering at the University of South Florida, was acquitted on eight of the 17 counts against him - including the most important one of conspiring to murder people overseas - while the jury was deadlocked on the remaining nine. Two co-defendants, Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Zayed Ballut, were acquitted on all charges, while a third, Hatem Naji Fariz, was cleared on 24 of the 32 counts against him.

For the moment however he will remain in custody until the Justice Department decides whether to seek a retrial on the lesser charges on which the jury could not reach a verdict.

The US government claimed that the 47-year-old professor was among the most important terrorist figures to be indicted here since the 9/11 attacks. It hailed the case as vindication of the Patriot Act, whose renewal the Bush administration is currently seeking. The measure allowed Mr Al-Arian's prosecutors to draw on foreign intelligence investigations, and use that evidence in a domestic criminal case.

Mr Al-Arian has lived in the US since 1975, and became a permanent resident in 1989.