Florida Plea Bargain Revisited As Legal Battle Rages On
Since Dr. Al-Arian was first called before a grand jury in October 2006, his attorneys have argued that the Florida plea bargain exempts Dr. Al-Arian from having to cooperate with the government (including testifying). During the negotiations over the plea agreement in early 2006, Dr. Al-Arian's then-attorneys submitted affidavits saying that Dr. Al-Arian's non-cooperation was non-negotiable. In a subsequent hearing held in November of that year, government prosecutor Terry Zitek stated in no uncertain terms that the cooperation clause was deliberately removed: "It's not there, and we're [the government] not...complaining that the defendant Al-Arian has refused to cooperate." To date, the government has not turned in any evidence on the plea negotiations, nor has it tried to rely on earlier drafts of the agreement which contain the cooperation clause that was ultimately removed.
Today's ruling will compel the government to produce facts and documents that will help determine whether Dr. Al-Arian was acting in good faith when he maintained that his plea agreement exempted him from having to testify before subsequent grand juries. In addition, the judge noted that, should the case move to the point of sentencing, this information would likely be necessary.
Eyebrows were raised when the lead government prosecutor himself, Gordon Kromberg, conceded in court today that the government had in fact removed the cooperation clause from the plea bargain upon the insistence of Dr. Al-Arian. Mr. Kromberg, however, tried to argue that the Eastern District of Virginia was not bound by the terms of the agreement. The judge, for her part, pointed out that the plea agreement was concluded with the Department of Justice (DOJ) as a whole, and that the DOJ could not be allowed to "compartmentalize" itself and that the understanding of the plea agreement is indeed "at the heart of the case."
Beyond the issue of the Florida plea agreement, the next step in the case will be for the judge to revisit the remaining motions submitted by Dr. Al-Arian, as they will determine what defenses will be allowed during the March 9th trial. In an earlier hearing, Judge Brinkema denied the government's motion which sought to bar Dr. Al-Arian from arguing that he was acting on the advice of his attorney's counsel when he decided to refuse to testify before a grand jury on March 20th, 2008. Nevertheless, the government has asked the judge to reconsider.
Around twenty friends and supporters attended the hearing today, some hailing from as far away as Tampa, Florida. The Tampa Bay Coalition for Justice and Peace would like to thank all those who came, as well as everyone else who was there in spirit. Every bit of support does make a difference.
The March 9th trial is fast approaching. The next hearing (which has yet to be scheduled) will also be very important, since the judge is expected to decide what defenses will be allowed in trial. Further updates will be provided in the near future.
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