Editor's note: The Associated Press reported that a federal judge on July 1 signed the order formally dismissing immigration charges against Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, clearing the way for the Bureau of Immigration and Custom Enforcement to deport him to Saudi Arabia. Had the charges stood, Al-Hussayen would have had to remain in the United States to stand trial on alleged immigration violations.
BOISE, Idaho In a case that posed a constitutional challenge to the Patriot Act, a Saudi graduate student was acquitted of charges he used his computer expertise to help Muslim terrorists raise money and recruit followers.
A jury deliberated nearly seven days before handing down its verdict yesterday in favor of Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, a 34-year-old Ph.D. candidate in computer science at the University of Idaho.
“The message is that the First Amendment is important and meaningful in this country,” said David Nevin, lead attorney for Al-Hussayen. “The system worked.”
The case against Al-Hussayen was seen as an important test of a provision of the Patriot Act that makes it a crime to provide expert advice or assistance to terrorists. The act, passed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, also expanded the government’s surveillance and detention powers.
Al-Hussayen set up and ran Web sites that prosecutors said were used to recruit terrorists, raise money and disseminate inflammatory rhetoric. They said the sites included religious edicts justifying suicide bombings and an invitation to contribute financially to the militant Palestinian organization Hamas.
Al-Hussayen’s attorneys argued that he had little to do with the creation of the material posted. And they said the material was protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of expression and was not designed to raise money or recruit extremists.
“There was a lack of hard evidence,” said juror John Steger. “There was no clear-cut evidence that said he was a terrorist, so it was all on inference.”
Steger said the 2 ½-year, multimillion-dollar federal investigation never generated the evidence even with reams of financial records and transcripts of intercepted phone calls and e-mails to convict Al-Hussayen.
“It showed he was involved in what he was doing,” Steger said, “but it seemed it was pretty innocent what he was doing.”
Al-Hussayen was acquitted on all three terrorism charges, as well as one count of making a false statement and two counts of visa fraud. Jurors could not reach verdicts on three more false-statement counts and five additional visa-fraud counts, and a mistrial was declared on those charges.
U.S. Attorney Tom Moss said it would be a week before a decision was made on whether to retry Al-Hussayen on the eight counts on which the jury was deadlocked.
Al-Hussayen faced up to 15 years for each of the three terrorism charges, 25 years on each visa-fraud charge and five years on each false-statement charge. He still faces deportation and will remain in custody until the government decides what to do next.
Moss rejected any suggestion that the verdict would stifle the government’s pursuit of terrorism supporters.
“You don’t just need people who will strap on bombs and walk into crowds. You need people to support them. For terrorism to flourish they have to have a communications network,” Moss said. “This was a case as prosecutors we’re expected to pursue.”
Justice Department officials in Washington declined comment on the verdict.
Legal experts see the verdict as only an early victory in what they expect to be an extended battle against the federal government’s use of the Patriot Act to pursue people on the basis of what they say, write and disseminate.
“This is a setback for them but not necessarily a definitive one,” said attorney Kevin Bankston at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a free-speech group. “The threat still exists so long as the law is enforced throughout the country.”
David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University, said Web masters should not put too much importance on the determination of one jury.
Cole said prosecuting an individual not for his own speech but for passing on the speech of others is “an extremely broad theory and the fact that it has been rejected in Idaho doesn’t mean that other prosecutors won’t pursue it elsewhere.
“But it ought to give pause to the Justice Department in pursuing such cases in the future,” he said.
Al-Hussayen, a member of a prominent family from Riyadh, has been jailed since his February 2003 arrest, continuing to work toward his doctorate from his cell. His wife and their children returned to Saudi Arabia earlier this year rather than fight deportation.
It was not the first time the government has lost a court battle over the Patriot Act provision. In January, a federal judge in California ruled the provision violates people’s First and Fifth Amendment rights.