Federal prosecutors on Friday dropped all charges against former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, whose criminal contempt case had sat in limbo for five years in front of a skeptical judge.
Al-Arian had 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 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 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 Associated Press reported last month that 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 moved Friday to drop the case, and U.S. Judge Anthony Trenga quickly followed suit with a formal order of dismissal. It was not immediately clear why Trenga dismissed the case instead of Brinkema.
The dismissal is expected to lead to Al-Arian's deportation, though it is not clear where he would be sent.
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, posted a statement on his blog after The dismissal order became official saying that the long prosecution of Al-Arian "remains one of the most troubling chapters in this nation's crackdown after 9-11" and ranks as "one of the most disturbing cases of my career in terms of the actions taken by our government. However, despite our often heated hearings in this case, I thank those at the Justice Department who agreed to the dismissal of the indictment. This family has been put through over a decade of grinding, unrelenting litigation."
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Virginia declined comment.