Sami Al-Hussayen not guilty of aiding terrorist groups

Some charges tossed out after jurors deadlock

June 11, 2004 


    THE MAN: Sami Al-Hussayen, 34, is a Saudi Arabian citizen pursuing a doctoral degree in computer science at the University of Idaho.

    On Feb. 26, 2003, he was arrested at his Moscow home by federal agents. He has been in jail ever since.

    Al-Hussayen is married and has three sons, the youngest an American citizen. His wife, Maha, a kindergarten teacher, left for Saudi Arabia with the children in January rather than fight deportation.

    Al-Hussayen has degrees from King Saud University in Saudi Arabia and Ball State University in Indiana. His family in Saudi Arabia is well-educated and well-connected. He has traveled the world with his father, an education minister. Three of his brothers are physicians; his sisters are university-educated.

    THE CHARGES: Two counts conspiracy to support terrorism; one count providing material support to terror groups; 11 counts visa and immigration fraud. The potential penalty was up to 15 years in prison for each terrorism-related charge and up to five years per fraud charge. He was found not guilty Thursday of the terrorism charges and two of the visa-immigration charges, which negated another charge. The jury deadlocked on the remaining charges. It's now up to federal prosecutors to decide if they want to retry Al-Hussayen on those charges.

    He remains in jail because, in a separate action, an immigration judge ruled in April 2003 that Al-Hussayen could be deported because he had earned money as a Web site manager in violation of his student visa.

Editor's note: Idaho's first post-9/11 terrorism case involved a University of Idaho student accused of aiding a terrorist group. Sami Al-Hussayen was eventually acquitted of the terrorism charges and deported to his home country of Saudi Arabia. This story detailing his verdict was originally published on June 11, 2004.

Sami Al-Hussayen left Boise's federal courthouse Thursday with a smile, as if he didn't even notice the shackles on his hands.

After seven days of deliberations, jurors found the University of Idaho graduate student not guilty of the three terrorism-related charges against him and two of the 11 visa and immigration fraud charges, which negated another charge. Jurors deadlocked on the remaining charges, prompting U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge to declare a mistrial on those charges.

Al-Hussayen remains in jail under a deportation order issued in 2003. Federal prosecutors now must decide whether to retry Al-Hussayen on the remaining visa charges or drop the case and allow immigration officials to deport him to his native Saudi Arabia. U.S. Attorney for Idaho Tom Moss said Thursday he was unsure how prosecutors will proceed.

The verdicts were sweet victory for Al-Hussayen, said lead defense attorney David Nevin.

"We have known all along Sami was not guilty of these charges, " he said. "It's such a relief and a pleasure to have the jury come to this conclusion."

Nevin also said the verdicts were important for Web site managers and others who care about free speech. Al-Hussayen was accused of supporting terrorist groups by posting e-mails, messages and other material on Web sites he managed for an Islamic outreach group.

"I hope the message is the First Amendment is important and meaningful in this country, and activities that are protected under the First Amendment shouldn't be the subject of prosecutions of this kind, " Nevin said. "We ought to limit ourselves to actions, as opposed to thoughts and words. "

Nevin also said "the worst words" offered into evidence were not from Al-Hussayen: "They were the words of other people."

Jury couldn't make the jump

Federal prosecutors spent more than six weeks trying to establish a link between Al-Hussayen, the Web sites he maintained and terror groups . They also tried to prove that Al-Hussayen posted information online with "knowledge and intent" it would be used to get money and recruits for terror groups.

But at least two jurors said they were confused by the prosecution evidence, and they didn't find any indication of a direct connection between Al-Hussayen and terror groups.

"I'm still kind of frustrated by the whole thing, " said juror Donna Palmer. "There was no clear evidence. ... We couldn't find the trail. A lot of times I wondered 'where was this going?' There was nothing concrete."

"I could see where the government was going with this case, but some of the stepping stones were pretty far apart. And we were uncomfortable making that jump."

Moss said he was disappointed with the verdict, but not with the jurors' hard work. Moss also said prosecutors did a great job, and he would not have changed the way they handled the case.

"Our legal system worked. It didn't work out the way some of us would have liked, but it worked, " Moss said.

"Material support (of terrorism) is a difficult charge to prove. ... It isn't like a case where you find fingerprints on a bomb."

Moss said he does not think the not-guilty verdicts for Al-Hussayen weaken the "war against terrorism" or will deter future terrorism prosecutions.

Relief in the courtroom

The verdicts came shortly before noon in a courtroom filled with journalists, court employees, and other onlookers .

The courtroom was silent as Lodge read the verdicts. Al-Hussayen stood, arms folded and eyes fixed on the judge for the first two not-guilty verdicts. When the jury acquitted him on the final terrorism charge, Nevin grabbed Al-Hussayen's arm and the defendant flashed a bright smile. He continued smiling as Lodge read two more not-guilty verdicts .

When Lodge finished, Al-Hussayen looked directly at jurors, nodded his head and smiled. He embraced Nevin.

Later, when the courtroom began to clear out, Al-Hussayen laughed and waved to supporters, who stood in groups shaking hands and talking. Al-Hussayen's smile was still there when he was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs.

"That was the reaction of a man who is at peace with himself, " said Marwan Mossaad of Boise, a friend of Al-Hussayen at the University of Idaho. "He's pretty calm and happy about it. ... He knows he has done nothing wrong."

Mossaad, who attended parts of the 26-day trial, said his friend's acquittal came as no surprise. Immediately after the verdicts, Mossaad used his cell phone to inform friends in Moscow. After talking with reporters, Mossaad ran to his car to continue spreading the news.

"This has taken the last year and a half of his life, and it's going to take him a while to catch up, " Mossaad said. "But we're all relieved it's over. This is a happy day."

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