Ten years ago, Sami Omar al-Hussayen, a young Saudi, came to the University of Idaho to expand his knowledge of digital technology. The Christian Science Monitor notes that in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, he organized community discussions to show local residents that Islam was nothing to be feared. Last year, however, the federal government charged that the expertise the doctoral candidate had acquired in computer science had been used as a tool to aid international terrorists.
The case is a major test of the reach and effectiveness of federal efforts to combat terrorism at home, including the USA Patriot Act. For Muslims elsewhere across the country, it is raising concerns about whether their civil liberties are being adequately protected in an era of stepped-up surveillance.
“This is a big, important trial, and the fate of Hussayen serves as a microcosm of what could happen across the country,” says defense attorney Gerry Spence. Spence won an acquittal in Boise in 1993 for former separatist Randy Weaver, who faced federal weapons and murder charges after family members were killed in a shootout with government agents at Ruby Ridge. Spence claims parallels between the Hussayen and Weaver cases: The government, he says, “has demonized the defendant by playing on the fears of the public so that it will accept greater government intrusion on civil liberties.”
The trial began last week.