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Saudi grad student cleared of terror charges

Mistrial declared on lesser charges

From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau

Justice and Rights
Acts of terror
Computer Networking

(CNN) -- A jury in Idaho on Thursday acquitted a Saudi graduate student of charges that he helped terrorists recruit and raise money through Internet sites

The verdicts prompted elation from supporters of Sami Omar al-Hussayan, who claimed his acquittal was a major blow to the government's anti-terrorism Patriot Act -- and disappointment from prosecutors, who downplayed any broad significance to the anti-terrorism strategy.

"We've known all along Sami was not guilty of these charges," said defense attorney David Nevin in an interview with local media. "What a relief and a pleasure."

"It's a letdown," subdued U.S. Attorney Tom Moss of the District of Idaho told local reporters after the decision.

After seven days of deliberations in the closely watched case, a federal jury in Boise acquitted al-Hussayan of all three-terrorism charges lodged against him by federal prosecutors, along with one count of lying to federal investigators and two counts of visa fraud.

A judge declared a mistrial on eight minor counts after jurors deadlocked on false statement and visa fraud charges.

Al-Hussayan had been charged with providing expert advice and assistance to terrorists through operation of Web sites of the Islamic Assembly of North America. Prosecutors said the sites were aimed at recruiting and funding militants and contended they fostered terrorism.

One of the jurors indicated members of the panel had held different views, forcing them to struggle for a week to finally reach a verdict on most counts.

"We talked about that we weren't going to step on anybody's rights to hold the opinion they had," said juror John Steger in interviews by local media.

In the end, the jurors deadlocked on counts of making false statements to federal agents and visa fraud. Moss said prosecutors "plan to take several days to weigh our options" in deciding whether to retry those counts.

Al-Hussayan, who has been in custody for more than a year, remained in prison Thursday night, while his attorney continues to appeal a deportation order. He could have faced a lengthy prison sentence if convicted. The terrorism counts carried sentences of up to 15 years in prison, officials said.

"We are quite relieved," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It has been a test of free speech, and we hope the government will now get off the backs of our [Muslim] community."

"We are thrilled the jury understood the importance of the First Amendment," said Ann Beeson, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. "We believe the material support statute is overbroad, and we are very glad the government's attempt to extend the bad statute has been thwarted."

Moss, however, dismissed such a broad interpretation of the loss, saying he does not believe it is a setback for the Patriot Act.

"This case had some connection to the Patriot Act, but most of this case could have been prosecuted if the Patriot Act had never happened," Moss said.

However, Attorney General John Ashcroft had highlighted the prosecution of al-Hussayan in a statement three months ago, when a grand jury returned a superseding indictment in the case.

Noting al-Hussayan was charged with "providing and concealing material support to terrorists and to Hamas, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization," Ashcroft said the case was part of "a terrorist threat to Americans that is fanatical, and it is fierce."

"The indictment alleges al-Hussayan operated more than a dozen Web sites, including some for the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation and two radical Saudi sheikhs. It further alleges that al-Hussayan knew and intended that his computer service and expertise would be used to recruit and raise funds for violent jihad around the world and that he conspired to conceal the nature of his support for terrorists," Ashcroft said.

But after a trial that lasted nearly two months, the jury agreed with the defense, which argued the Saudi computer expert was simply exercising his First Amendment right of free speech and, in any event, was more involved with the technical requirements than the content of the Web sites.

Al-Hussayan, who has worked on his doctorate from his cell, could choose to return to Saudi Arabia when freed, lawyers said. His wife and children have already returned to their homeland.

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