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Archive for Saturday, May 29, 2004

Court must weigh terror charges vs. free speech

May 29, 2004

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— A bespectacled computer whiz sits at the center of what civil libertarians are calling a confrontation between the First Amendment and the war on terror.

Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, a Muslim graduate student at the University of Idaho, has spent the past six weeks on trial on charges he provided material support to terrorist groups -- not with cash or arms, but with computer expertise.

The Saudi-born Ph.D. candidate set up and ran Web sites that prosecutors say were used to recruit terrorists, raise money and disseminate inflammatory rhetoric.

His supporters say the government is using vague anti-terrorism laws to prosecute Al-Hussayen for his beliefs.

"To the extent that someone provides guns or money to a group for terrorism, that should be punished," said Kevin Bankston, an attorney for the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation. "But you can't outlaw advocacy for any group or position, and that seems to be what they are attempting to do."

The case is seen as a major test of a provision of the Patriot Act that targets "secondary" terrorists who provide "expert advice or assistance." In January, in another case, a federal judge in California ruled the provision violates people's First and Fifth Amendment rights.

In the Al-Hussayen case, federal prosecutors have portrayed him as a major force in the Islamic Assembly of North America. They say he served as its webmaster and posted diatribes against Jews and the United States and scholarly Islamic decrees extolling the virtues of suicide bombers.

"Al-Hussayen provided the linkage to create the platform and then the content to advocate extreme jihad," prosecutor Kim Lindquist said.

Prosecutors have presented evidence that Al-Hussayen registered the site's domain name, paid bills for server space, uploaded files and participated in chats. They allege he knew his actions would bring in donations and recruits for groups affiliated with terrorist organizations, including Hamas.

Al-Hussayen, 34, has said he simply volunteered his computer skills to keep the Michigan-based group's Web sites running. One of his attorneys, David Nevin, said the Web site's concentration on Muslim conflicts around the world merely reflects Al-Hussayen's deep concern about oppression of those who share his faith.

Al-Hussayen's attorneys have further argued that he had little to do with the creation of the material posted. And they say the material was protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of expression and was not designed to raise money or recruit militants.

Closing arguments are set for Tuesday.

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