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Florida Terrorism Trial Begins

Jury selection is under way in the trial of Sami Al-Arian, a former university professor in the city of Tampa, Florida, who, along with eight co-defendants, is accused of raising money for the terrorist group, Islamic Jihad.

The 159-page indictment against Sami Al-Arian accuses the former University of South Florida professor and his co-defendants of racketeering, conspiracy and extortion. The indictment alleges the group worked as a terrorist cell, to finance Islamic Jihad, which is blamed for terrorist attacks that have killed more than 100 people in Israel, including at least one U.S. citizen.

Prosecutors say Mr. Al-Arian used his position as professor of engineering to organize a pro-Palestinian public policy institute and charity that served as a cover to raise money, which was later used to fund Islamic Jihad attacks. Mr. Al-Arian and three of his co-defendants who will be tried in the case have denied the charges. The other defendants in the case fled the United States before they could be arrested.

Prosecutors will not comment on the case. Mr. Al-Arian's defense lawyers say their client is being singled out because of his pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel views.

University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett says the case is controversial because it deals with issues of free-speech and terrorism.

"Is the government going too far in prosecuting someone, just for the legitimate free speech and free expression rights, or for the ability to raise money for charitable groups overseas, or fighting for the Palestinian cause, or are they actually getting someone that supports terrorism, and someone who might have been responsible for the death of an American overseas," he questioned.

Last year, the case became a major issue in the campaign for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat.

Democratic Party candidate former University of South Florida President Betty Castor was accused by her Republican Party opponent, Mel Martinez, of being soft on terrorism for her initial refusal to fire Professor Al-Arian from his post, after FBI agents searched his home and office in 1995.

Aubrey Jewett of the University of Central Florida says it was a good example of how homeland security issues can become politically explosive.

"For the average Florida voter, it probably was not that important, but I think it did tap into the voters general unease about homeland security, and so, in that regard, I think, you will probably see that happening more in Florida, and also across the country, as politicians, whether they are running for the House or Senate, or for president, will use it," he said. "Because the homeland security issue is going to be with us for a long time, there is an underlying sense of unease that people are worrying about."

The case has generated intense publicity in the Tampa, Florida, area. More than half of all jurors questioned in the initial phase of jury selection were dismissed for bias. The judge hearing the case has indicated that one of his first decisions will be whether or not to order a change of venue.