Betsy Z. Russell
June 10, 2004
BOISE – A loud sigh was heard in the courtroom today as jurors announced that they’d found Sami Al-Hussayen innocent of the first charge against him – conspiring to provide material support to terrorists.
More not-guilty verdicts quickly followed. The University of Idaho graduate student was acquitted of all three terrorism charges against him, plus three immigration charges. The jury deadlocked on the remaining eight immigration charges, and federal Judge Edward Lodge declared a mistrial on those charges.
Defense attorney David Nevin declared the verdict a victory for the First Amendment. “I hope the message is that the First Amendment is important and meaningful in this country, and activities protected by the First Amendment really shouldn’t be subject to prosecution,” he said. “I think (the prosecution of) this case represented a pushing of the envelope for what will be permissible in the future. I think this case suggests they won't do that in the future - which I think is good for the First Amendment.”
The University of Idaho graduate student from Saudi Arabia was accused of providing material support to terrorists, in part by operating and maintaining various Web sites for an Islamic group, the Islamic Assembly of North America. He also was charged with visa fraud and false statements, for doing the unpaid Internet work after certifying on immigration forms that he was coming to the United States “solely” to study.
Prosecutors contended the Web sites formed a network that helped terrorists raise funds and drum up recruits for acts of violence overseas, but the defense characterized them as innocent religious and analytical sites.
U.S. Attorney for Idaho Tom Moss said, “I was surprised, I was disappointed, but we accept it. … I don’t think it’ll affect in any degree the way the war on terror proceeds. The Department of Justice is still committed, as is our office, to vigorously pursuing and prosecuting anyone who supports terrorism, and this case is not going to deter those efforts.”
It’s now up to prosecutors to decide whether to try again to prosecute Al-Hussayen, 34, on the remaining visa fraud and false statement charges that brought the mistrial. “We’ll need to take a few days to look at it and make a determination,” Moss said.
Al-Hussayen remains jailed on an immigration hold. He’s been ordered deported, but is appealing that ruling. However, since his wife and three young sons already have returned to Saudi Arabia rather than face deportation, Al-Hussayen may do the same.
Lead prosecutor Kim Lindquist passed a hand across his forehead as the verdict was read, while Nevin, standing next to Al-Hussayen, gripped the young bearded man’s arm.
Al-Hussayen had remained calm and cheerful throughout his eight-week trial. Nevin said afterward, “You know what he did? As we were waiting for the verdict, I grabbed his arm. He leans over to me and says, ‘Calm down, it’s going to be OK.’ “
The four-man, eight-woman jury spent seven days deliberating on the 14 charges against Al-Hussayen, but juror John Steger said they decided in fairly short order to acquit the student on the three terrorism charges.
“I think we had less trouble with the first three counts (the terrorism charges) than all the rest of ‘em,” Steger said. “I guess I’d say it was a lack of evidence.”
The jury reached unanimous agreement to acquit Al-Hussayen on the terrorism charges by about the third or fourth day of deliberations, he said. “All the evidence that we had was not clear-cut, saying that he was a terrorist, so there had to be a lot of inference, that kind of thing.”
He added, “The part that surprised me was when I read the First Amendment instructions. I was surprised to learn that people could say whatever they want ... providing it would not cause imminent action.”
The huge number of intercepted e-mails and phone calls, lectures and articles posted on the Internet, contracts, financial records and so forth that the prosecution presented in the case “showed he was involved in what he was doing, but it seemed rather innocent, the stuff he was talking about,” Steger said. As for materials that Al-Hussayen was accused of posting on the Internet, “Ninety-nine percent of it was fine, and the stuff that was inflammatory, by the First Amendment he had the right to do that. I guess the question was, would putting this on web sites cause people to sign up with terrorists? I don't know.”
Al-Hussayen was the first person to be charged with providing material support to terrorists by operating Web sites. He also was the first to face visa fraud charges for engaging in activities outside class after certifying he was here “solely” to study.
“It was a different kind of a charge, one they hadn’t done before,” Moss said. “The verdict doesn’t diminish the good work that’s happened in this case. It has been good, it’s been effective, and I recognize that.”
Steger said the jury spent much of its time in deliberations reading and interpreting its complicated instructions, and haggling over the visa fraud and false statements charges, which jurors found confusing.
“We all think that they’re going to revise those (immigration) forms, to make them more clear,” Steger said. “Like what does the word ‘solely’ mean? What does the word ‘business’ mean? What does the word ‘volunteer’ mean? None of those are in the law.”
Jurors acquitted Al-Hussayen on one charge of visa fraud and one of false statements. The remaining charges that brought a deadlock are similar, but deal with immigration laws as revised after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Ed Hiddleson, foreman of the jury, said several jurors might hold a press conference in the coming days to share their perspectives. He was reluctant to say much immediately, but said he “wouldn’t agree entirely” with Steger that the terrorism charges were easier to decide. “My position is a little bit different,” he said. “There was a lot of emotion that’s been going on the last few days.”
Al-Hussayen was just months away from earning his doctorate in computer science at the University of Idaho when he was arrested in February of 2003. He has continued to do some limited work toward his degree from his jail cell.
Whether or not he returns to Saudi Arabia, Nevin said, “My guess is that Sami, knowing him, will get this (doctorate) done one way or another.”
Count 1 – Conspiracy to provide material support or resources to terrorists. INNOCENT
Count 2 – Providing and concealing material support and resources to terrorists. INNOCENT
Count 3 – Conspiracy to provide material support and resources to a designated foreign terrorist organization. INNOCENT
Count 4 – False statement to the United States. INNOCENT
Count 5 – Visa fraud. INNOCENT
Count 6 – Visa fraud. INNOCENT
The jury was deadlocked on counts 7, 10 and 12, which charged false statements, and counts 8, 9, 11, 13, and 14, which charged visa fraud. A mistrial was declared on those counts.