CHICAGO - A federal magistrate has disclosed that documents that could be critical in the government's prosecution of a Palestinian charged as an Islamic militant in the United States have been destroyed, potentially undermining the ability of the Bush administration to prosecute a case that it has called a victory in its war on terrorism.
Sami Al-Arian, a former professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, is in jail on charges of funneling money and support from Chicago and Florida to the radical Palestinian group Islamic Jihad.
U.S. Magistrate Thomas McCoun III said in a letter to Al-Arian's lawyers that search warrants used in 1995 in his case were shredded by mistake, casting doubt on the admissibility of some government evidence.
Investigators used the warrants to raid Al-Arian's home, his university office and a think tank with which he was associated.
The absence of the court documents could prevent the U.S. government from using as evidence in court the materials they seized from the 1995 search, Linda Moreno, one of Al-Arian's lawyers, said yesterday.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, several cases the U.S. government has brought against alleged Islamic militants have fizzled for lack of evidence.
"The government has a problem that these documents have been destroyed," Moreno said.
"Dr. Al-Arian has a right to legally challenge the search and seizure of his home and his university office.
"In order to do that he has to examine the integrity of the search warrant, its application, its affidavit and the resulting inventory," he said.
"If those documents have been destroyed, how do we know that the affidavit had sufficient probable cause?"
But Assistant U.S. Attorney David Rhodes said yesterday that it was unclear whether the destruction of the documents will prevent the U.S. government from admitting into court the evidence obtained from the 1995 search.
"If and when the defendants file a motion seeking to suppress the evidence obtained from the 1995 search, we will respond in court," Rhodes said.
In a letter sent Friday from McCoun, a federal magistrate in Tampa, Fla., to Al-Arian's lawyers, who had requested the court documents, McCoun wrote:
"My deputy reports that these original court files no longer exist. ... Clerks in the Tampa division began shredding magistrate judge files more than five years old. ... This shredding included sealed files kept in the court's vault."
Investigators said that during the 1995 search they collected volumes of Al-Arian's documents, books and other materials about Islamic groups.
Moreno said documents about Islamic groups were not unusual because Al-Arian used the material for his scholarly research.
Al-Arian said at the time of his arrest that he was being prosecuted because of his political views in support of a Palestinian state.
"It's all about politics," Al-Arian said on Feb. 20, 2003, the day of his arrest.
He is accused of being the U.S. leader of Islamic Jihad, a group that has taken responsibility for suicide bombings that killed scores of people in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since 1994.
Islamic Jihad has denied any links to Al-Arian.
Prosecutors say Al-Arian and seven others funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the organization.
U.S. officials have said that they have extensive evidence against Al-Arian that goes beyond the 1995 search. Federal prosecutors say they have thousands of hours of taped telephone calls, most of them in Arabic, linking Al-Arian and the seven other defendants to members of Islamic Jihad.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, when the Justice Department increased its investigation and prosecutions of terrorist-related cases, many have run into trouble. Investigators have referred about 6,400 people for alleged terror-related crimes since Sept. 11, but fewer than one-third were charged, according to a study released this week by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
The median prison sentence was 14 days, and only five people were sentenced to 20 years or more, according to the study.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.