McLEAN, Va. — Federal prosecutors moved Friday to drop criminal contempt charges against a Palestinian activist whose case has sat in limbo for five years in front of a skeptical judge.
Former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian has been a target of the Justice Department for more than a decade. He was initially charged with playing a leadership role in the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He ended up taking a plea bargain on greatly reduced charges after a jury failed to convict him following a lengthy trial.
After accepting the plea deal in Tampa, Florida, in 2006, it had been expected that Al-Arian would be deported.
Instead, the legal saga continued when prosecutors in Alexandria sought his testimony in a separate investigation. Al-Arian refused, saying he had carefully negotiated the Florida plea deal to exclude the usual requirement to cooperate with government investigations.
But appellate courts ruled that prosecutors were within their rights to subpoena Al-Arian. In 2008, prosecutors in Virginia filed criminal contempt charges against Al-Arian for his refusal to testify despite a grant of immunity.
For the last five years, the case has sat dormant on the court docket. Judge Leonie Brinkema questioned the government’s tactics and wondered whether prosecutors were violating the spirit of Al-Arian’s plea deal in Florida, if not the letter of it.
In 2009, she told lawyers that she would rule “soon” on pretrial motions that needed to be resolved for the case to go forward. But without explanation, she has refused to rule on those matters.
The only substantive action she has taken on the case has been to liberalize the conditions of Al-Arian’s pretrial detention. For several years, he had essentially been on home arrest, living with his family. Last year, she modified the conditions so that Al-Arian was free to leave the home under GPS monitoring as long as he met a curfew.
As a result of the legal limbo, prosecutors have been unable to pursue the contempt case, and the government has been unable to deport him.
The five-year limbo is a rarity in criminal cases and even more unusual in the Eastern District of Virginia, known as the “Rocket Docket” for its swift disposition of cases.
Prosecutors said Friday they will drop the case, which will likely result in Al-Arian’s deportation.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg noted in the motion to dismiss that the government had prodded Brinkema back in 2010 to rule on pretrial matters so the case could proceed, one way or another.
“The United States reaffirms the evaluations of the merit of the prosecution that were made in 2008 and again in 2010. Nevertheless, in light of the passage of time without resolution, the United States has decided that the best available course of action is to move to dismiss the indictment so that action can be taken to remove the defendant from the United States,” Kromberg wrote.
Prosecutors’ only other option for pushing the case forward would have been to pursue a writ against Brinkema in front of another judge, which would have proved awkward given that prosecutors appear before Brinkema on hundreds of criminal matters a year.
Al-Arian’s lawyer, Jonathan Turley, who had argued for the case to be dropped, declined comment until the judge formally signs off on the dismissal.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia also declined comment.