Student on Trial for Aid to Muslim Web Sites
The New York Times
April 27, 2004
BOISE, Idaho, April
23 - Not long after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a
group of Muslim students led by a Saudi Arabian doctoral candidate
held a candlelight vigil in the small college town of Moscow,
Idaho, and condemned the attacks as an affront to Islam.
Today, that graduate
student, Sami Omar al-Hussayen, is on trial in a heavily guarded
courtroom here, accused of plotting to aid and to maintain Islamic
Web sites that promote jihad.
As a Web master to
several Islamic organizations, Mr. Hussayen helped to maintain
Internet sites with links to groups that praised suicide bombings
in Chechnya and in Israel. But he himself does not hold those
views, his lawyers said. His role was like that of a technical
editor, they said, arguing that he could not be held criminally
liable for what others wrote.
say the case poses a landmark test of what people can do or whom
they can associate with in the age of terror alerts. It is one
of the few times anyone has been prosecuted under language in
the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, which makes
it a crime to provide "expert guidance or assistance"
to groups deemed terrorist.
fixes a fax machine that is owned by a group that may advocate
terrorism could be liable," said David Cole, a Georgetown
University law professor who argued against the expert guidance
part of the antiterrorism law this year, in a case where it was
struck down by a federal judge.
Mr. Hussayen, 34,
a father of three who was pursuing a doctorate in computer sciences
at the University of Idaho, is charged with three counts of conspiracy
to support terrorism and 11 counts of visa and immigration fraud.
His trial opened on April 14 and is expected to last until June.
The trial offers
conflicting views of Mr. Hussayen, a son of the Saudi middle class.
Defense lawyers have portrayed him as a loving family man who
embraces Western values while holding to his Islamic faith; the
prosecution team has presented him as a secret conspirator, aiding
the cause of terrorism through his computer skills.
[In a ruling that
bolstered Mr. Hussayen's case on Monday, Judge Edward J. Lodge
of Federal District Court in Idaho would not let prosecutors show
the jury a Web page that encourages suicide bombings. The judge
said the government must prove that Mr. Hussayen created the page
or endorsed its contents.]
Earlier this year,
Judge Audrey B. Collins of the Federal District Court in Los Angeles,
struck down a part of the antiterrorism law being used in this
trial, ruling that it was overly broad and vague. But Judge Collins
did not extend her ruling beyond the one case in California.
President Bush made
several recent campaign-style stops on behalf of the antiterrorism
law, saying it is an essential tool for law enforcement.
Act defends our liberty, is what it does, under the Constitution
of the United States," Mr. Bush said in Buffalo on Tuesday.
Idaho, one of the
most Republican states, has become an unlikely home of opposition
to the act.
The state's senior
senator, the Republican Larry E. Craig, and Representative C.
L. Otter, also a Republican, have sponsored bills to amend the
act, which they have called a threat to civil liberties.
Mr. Hussayen's lead
lawyer, David Nevin, is best known for his defense in 1993 of
Kevin Harris, who was involved in a standoff with government agents
at a cabin in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, along with Randall C. Weaver.
That case, in which Mr. Weaver's wife and teenage son were shot
and killed by government agents, is a cause célebre among
mainly right-leaning civil libertarians.
Some of Mr. Hussayen's
supporters say they see a similar kind of government abuse in
"It's an illustration
of how much power the government can bring against somebody,"
said John Dickinson, a retired professor of computer sciences
who was Mr. Hussayen's doctoral adviser at the University of Idaho.
"It should scare anybody."
Mr. Dickinson said
he was interviewed by the F.B.I. for several hours after Mr. Hussayen's
arrest in February 2003. "They kept saying his Ph.D. program
was a front and that the person I knew was only the tip of this
monstrous iceberg," he said. "But I've yet to hear one
thing the government has said since then that has made me question
officials and prosecutors refused to comment on the broader implications
of the case, citing the trial. But in court documents, the government
makes a case that Mr. Hussayen funneled money to Islamic charities
with terrorist ties and that he posted calls for jihad by different
In the indictment,
the government charged that Mr. Hussayen provided "computer
advice and assistance, communications facilities, and financial
instruments and services that assisted in the creation and maintenance
of Internet Web sites and other Internet medium intended to recruit
and raise funds for violent jihad, particularly in Palestine and
And they have argued
that Mr. Hussayen's technical assistance, even if he did not share
the beliefs of the groups he helped, were like providing a gun
to an armed robber.
Most of the facts
are not in dispute. Mr. Hussayen's lawyers said that he gave money
to legitimate Islamic charities and that his Web site work was
protected by the First Amendment. The Web sites he maintained
also posted views opposing jihad, they said.
The government has
argued that Mr. Hussayen, a Saudi citizen who is the son of a
retired Saudi minister of education, does not have all the protections
of an American citizen. They said he abused his privilege as a
student by working for computer sites that advocate terror. His
friends in the Idaho college town may have known one side of him,
the prosecutor, Kim Lindquist, said in his opening remarks to
the jury, but they seldom saw "the private face of extreme
The Saudi government
is paying for the defense of Mr. Hussayen, his family said.
One of the charities
that Mr. Hussayen supported, Islamic Assembly of North America,
still operates out of Ann Arbor, Mich. On its Web site, the group
says its mission is to promote the spread of Islam, and the group
solicits money from the public. Mr. Nevin said the charity has
never been classified as terrorist by the government.
But the government
said the Michigan charity was one of the Web sites that "accommodated
materials that advocated violence against the United States."
Both sides in this
case are looking to appeals that will probably turn on the part
of the antiterrorism law thrown out by Judge Collins in January.
In that case, the
judge ruled on behalf of several humanitarian groups that wanted
to provide support to the nonviolent arms of two organizations
designated as terrorist in Turkey and Sri Lanka. Judge Collins
wrote that "a woman who buys cookies at a bake sale outside
her grocery store to support displaced Kurdish refugees to find
new homes could be held liable" if the sale was sponsored
by a group designated terrorist.
The American Civil
Liberties Union, which is trying to overturn the antiterrorism
law in court, tried to join the Idaho case but was rebuffed by
"We very much
wanted to be involved in this case because it is by far the most
radical prosecution we've seen under the Patriot Act," said
Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the national A.C.L.U.
"You shouldn't be held liable for what somebody else said.
Under this theory, you could charge the electrician who services
the wrong client."