WASHINGTON -- A federal jury in Idaho acquitted a Saudi computer student yesterday of charges that he spread terrorism on the Internet, handing the Justice Department a resounding defeat in a case that turned on a provision of the USA Patriot Act.
The case of Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, 34, in Boise had become a test of the scope of U.S. anti-terrorism laws, including a provision of the Patriot Act that targets secondary players.
Al-Hussayen was arrested in February last year in an early morning raid at his campus home at the University of Idaho in Moscow. He was accused of designing Web sites and posting messages on the Internet to help recruit and raise money for terrorist missions in Chechnya and Israel. His attorneys argued that he was being prosecuted for expressing views protected by the First Amendment.
The jury of four men and eight women delivered their verdicts after deliberating seven days. The trial lasted seven weeks and featured a convicted terrorist who said he was influenced by Al-Hussayen's Internet writings and a retired CIA operative who said he thought the government's case was a waste of time.
Al-Hussayen was acquitted on all three terrorism counts against him, as well as one count of making a false statement and two counts of visa fraud. Jurors could not reach verdicts on several other false-statement and visa-fraud counts, and a mistrial was declared on those charges.
"I think they need to focus on real terrorism cases. There are plenty of ways to do that without dismantling the Constitution," David Nevin, Al-Hussayen's attorney, said in an interview after the verdict. "The message [from the jury to the Justice Department] has to be: `Do it the right way.'"
Prosecutors said they had not decided whether to seek a retrial on the lesser false-statement and visa-fraud counts.
"We are naturally disappointed by the acquittals on some charges and the deadlock on others," Tom Moss, the U.S. attorney in Boise, said in a prepared statement. "But my office and the Department of Justice remain committed to aggressively pursue those who provide illegal support to terrorists."
The verdicts point up a little-known reality of the Justice Department's war on terror since the Sept. 11 attacks. Although it has won scores of highly publicized guilty pleas in terror-related cases, often by dropping the most serious charges, its courtroom record is mixed.
It has taken only two other major terror-related cases to trial since the 2001 attacks, and at least some defendants have been acquitted in each. In one case, involving an alleged domestic "sleeper cell" in Detroit, the judge has threatened to throw out all three convictions because prosecutors allegedly withheld exculpatory information.
The case against Al-Hussayen -- the son of a retired Saudi education minister who had been studying in the United States for nine years -- raised questions from the start.
His arrest 16 months ago shocked the local Muslim community in the college town of Moscow, where he was known as a family-oriented father of three who shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks organized a blood drive and a candlelight vigil that condemned the attacks as an affront to Islam.
He was eventually charged under a section of the Patriot Act that makes it illegal to provide "expert advice or assistance" to terrorists. The provision was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in Los Angeles in January, although that ruling was not binding on the Idaho case.
"In some respects, this was the broadest reach in all of the government's anti-terrorism prosecutions," said David Cole, a Georgetown University Law Center professor. "When President Bush and [Vice President] Dick Cheney say you have not shown me a single abuse of the Patriot Act, I think people can now say, `Look at the Sami Omar Al-Hussayen case -- a case where the government sought to criminalize pure speech and was resoundingly defeated.'"
John Dickinson, a retired University of Idaho computer-sciences professor who was Al-Hussayen's Ph.D. adviser, said the verdict brought relief.
"If this case had gone the wrong way, it would have sent a chilling message to every international student in the country that if they dare volunteer for something, they could be arrested," he said.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Times researcher Lynn Marshall in Seattle contributed to this report.