A federal judge imposed Thursday la civil contempt order upon a former university professor who has refused for more than 18 months to testify before a grand jury investigating Muslim charities and businesses.
The practical impact of the ruling is unclear. Sami Al-Arian is still in jail to serve the remaining time on a five-year prison sentence for conspiring to aid a Palestinian terror group.
In addition, nothing precludes the government from seeking another civil contempt finding and more jail time when a new grand jury convenes.
The government's prosecution of al-Arian, 49, a former professor at the University of South Florida, has attracted international attention for years. Prosecutors alleged that al-Arian was one of the U.S. leaders of a major terrorist group. Government critics argued the case against al-Arian was flimsy and reflected overzealous prosecution of Muslim Americans in terrorism cases.
Al-Arian's lawyer, Jonathan Turley, said he was relieved by the decision.
"The use of civil contempt to prolong his punishment has been a shocking abuse of the system by the Justice Department," Turley said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney declined comment.
Prosecutors in Florida brought the initial criminal charges against al-Arian in 2003, alleging that he was a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But his six-month trial in 2005 ended in an acquittal on some counts and a hung jury on others.
Prosecutors decided to retry him, and in April 2006 al-Arian agreed to a plea bargain. He admitted that he conspired to aid the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, specifically by helping a family member with links to the group obtain immigration benefits and by lying to a reporter about another individual's ties to the group.
He was sentenced to nearly five years in prison, minus credit for the time he had served.
Shortly after he was sentenced, prosecutors in Virginia subpoenaed al-Arian under a grant of immunity to testify to a grand jury investigating a cluster of Muslim charities based in Herndon.
Al-Arian refused to testify, and said that the terms of his plea bargain specifically eliminated any requirement to testify. Two judges, though, disagreed and found al-Arian in civil contempt.
Al-Arian went on a two-month hunger strike in January to protest the contempt charges, losing 55 pounds (25 kilograms) and being hospitalized before ending the strike.
He would have been released and deported in April if not for the contempt charges. Al-Arian was born in Kuwait to Palestinian refugee parents and was reared mostly in Egypt before coming to the United States 30 years ago.