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As violent clashes between Palestinians and Israelis continue in the West Bank, a Palestinian man went to trial in Chicago on Tuesday on criminal contempt charges stemming from his refusal to testify before a federal grand jury on his alleged ties to a terrorist group overseas. Early on, lawyers for Sharif Alwan raised concerns that news coverage of those events could lead to a biased jury. The defense team is also insisting that it was fear of retaliation against their client or his family members still living abroad that drove him to silence, and not disrespect for American law. Indeed, because of the violence between Israelis and Palestinians in recent weeks that has resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people, the legal team for Sharif Alwan has already raised concerns that news coverage of those events could bias potential jurors hearing his case. That concern led to a motion filed over the weekend before U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo seeking either dismissal of the charge against Alwan, a reasonable continuance of the trial, or, at least, extensive questioning during voir dire of what the jury pool had read about the violent clashes and whether such knowledge would affect their objectivity. Rather than delay the trial, Castillo opted on Monday for the third choice. “If I discover it is difficult to select a jury I will not hesitate to hold the trial at another time,” Castillo said. In the end, it took only one day to pick the 12 jurors and two alternates. When asked by Castillo whether news coverage of the events in the Middle East or Alwan’s nationality would cause them not to be fair and impartial, none of the 55 people in the jury pool raised their hand. There also was no reaction from the pool when Castillo asked if they had heard of the Hamas organization and whether that knowledge would keep them from being fair and impartial. However, Castillo admonished the jurors that there was no charge against Alwan that he is a member of Hamas. Hamas has been identified by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization operating in the Middle East against the Israelis. Alwan, 31, a lawful permanent resident, has been in federal custody for 15 months for refusing to testify before a grand jury on his contacts with Hamas, despite being granted immunity by prosecutors. He was initially charged with civil contempt in July 1999. This July, he was charged with criminal contempt when he once again refused to tell the grand jury about his alleged connections with Hamas. Deputy U.S. Attorney Joan Safford said in her opening statement to the selected jurors that Alwan repeatedly refused to answer questions related to his receiving military training from Hamas in Syria, Lebanon and the United States. FEAR OF RETALIATION The defense that Stanley Hill and Dalal M. Jarad will put on for their client is that Alwan did not knowingly violate a court order to testify; rather, he did so out of fear that something would happen to himself or family members still living in the West Bank. “The evidence will show that Mr. Alwan has a genuine and reasonable fear that, if he testifies, he and members of his family would be subjected to retaliation,” Jarad told the jury during her opening statement Tuesday morning. During a 1995 visit to the West Bank, Alwan was arrested by Israeli security and held for four months, during which he was denied access to family, an attorney, deprived of sleep and food, forced to sit or stand for hours and threatened with more physical harm, Jarad said. So when he was asked similar questions before the grand jury that he was asked by the Israelis when in custody, it “brought back all of the terror and fear,” said Jarad, the name partner in Law Offices of Jarad and Associates. Even on the morning of jury selection, Safford and Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel W. Gillogly objected to that defense, despite Castillo having already ruled that Alwan would be able to testify about his fears of retaliation. The prosecutors cited U.S. v. Leonard Patrick, 543 F. 2d. 381, a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision from 1976 as the basis for why Alwan should not be allowed to tell the jury about his fears. In that case, Leonard Patrick refused to testify in the corruption trial of a Chicago Police lieutenant out of fear that the officer would harm him and family members. Patrick was found guilty of criminal contempt and sentenced to four years in prison. The appeals court upheld the conviction because “fear, by itself, will not legally justify or excuse a witness” who refuses to testify before a jury. In his final decision on the matter, Castillo said it appeared the prosecutors were “cutting off” Alwan from putting on a defense. “I think that’s wrong,” Castillo added. “I think the defendant has a right to put on a defense, and a jury has a right to make a determination.” However, Castillo did draw the line at allowing an expert witness to testify for the defense about interrogation and torture techniques of Israeli security forces. He wanted the testimony of the expert witness to present “objective facts” to back up Alwan’s “subjective belief” of retaliation, Hill said. But the jurist ultimately considered that testimony to be irrelevant and beyond the charge pending against Alwan. “I don’t want to turn this into a trial of how Israeli security forces conduct business,” Castillo said. “If we go down that road we could hear any kind of testimony.” If convicted of the criminal contempt charges, Castillo will use his discretion to decide the length of Alwan’s prison term.

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