Action Alert from Washington Report On Middle East Affairs 1/16/09

At a hearing this morning at the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, VA, Judge Leonie K. Brinkema denied defense motions to dismiss criminal contempt charges against Dr. Sami Al-Arian, and set a trial date of March 9, 2009.

One of the motions Judge Brinkema dismissed argued that the charges against Dr. Al-Arian should be dismissed because Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg had unilaterally added additional language to the charges beyond what Congress had stipulated. In an earlier hearing Judge Brinkema had expressed some shock at Kromberg’s action, but today ruled that, while she found it “unwise,” it was not grounds for dismissal.

Judge Brinkema also rejected the government’s request that the jury for Dr. Al-Arian’s trial be anonymous–i.e., that each juror be identified by number only.  Emphasizing that Dr. Al-Arian, who currently is restricted to his family’s apartment in Arlington, Virginia, had fully complied with the terms of his release to his daughter’s custody, the federal judge stated that his trial would be open and accessible.

Kromberg and Jonathan Turley, Dr. Al-Arian’s attorney, were instructed to try to arrive at a joint account of the history leading up to the current charges, so that the jurors would have some context in which to consider them. If the attorneys were unable to do so, the judge added, she would prepare one herself, since much of that history is part of the public record. Among the events Judge Brinkema cited was the fact that in his earlier trial in Tampa, FL, Dr. Al-Arian had not been convicted of a single terrorism charge against him, and that the charges on which the 12-person jury was hung were 10-2 in favor of acquittal.

Nevertheless, the judge emphasized, the upcoming trial would not be about terrorism, but only the current charges of criminal contempt of court.

Judge Brinkema granted a defense motion that Dr. Al-Arian could use the “advise of counsel” defense. He can therefore argue that he signed a plea agreement which did not specifically state that he was not required to testify in other trials–the reason behind the criminal contempt charges–because his attorney at the time had informed him that those words were not necessary.