Watch CBSN Live

Court Test For Patriot Act

The trial of a Saudi Arabian student accused of using his computer to help Islamic militants overseas is being seen as a key test of a USA Patriot Act provision that prohibits offering help to terrorist groups.

A 12-person jury was seated Tuesday to hear the case of Sami Omar Al-Hussayen, 34, a University of Idaho graduate student facing three counts of supporting terrorism by running Web sites that support the violent Palestinian group Hamas and organizations that advocate attacks on the United States.

He also has been accused of maintaining bank accounts in four states to funnel money to a Michigan organization that federal agents claim has links to terrorists. In addition, the government has filed visa fraud and false statement charges against Al-Hussayen.

A federal judge questioned potential jurors on their knowledge of Islam, religious conflicts in the Middle East and Chechnya, their computer ability and their personal feelings on terrorism before attorneys picked the final panelist.

"These issues are somewhat volatile and the type of things that sometimes cause a person to get angry," U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge said. "It's important that you keep an open mind throughout the trial."

Al-Hussayen, who has denied any wrongdoing, has been charged with a Patriot Act provision that a federal judge in California already has ruled threatens both First and Fifth Amendment rights.

U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins ruled in January that the act's measure barring "expert advice or assistance" to groups designated foreign terrorist organizations is too vague.

"We have a law that is shaky at best," said Rand Lewis, director of the Martin Institute for Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution and the Martin School of International Affairs at the University of Idaho. "My feeling is that Sami is going to be the test case in this."

He said the government was attempting to use the law to prosecute not terrorist leaders, their lieutenants or those who actively support them with cash and safe-havens, but people who may inadvertently provide assistance because of their special skills.

"Passive supporters often don't know they're supporting terrorism," Lewis said. "So when you get into these gray areas about what people know and what they don't know, I think the law is going to have a difficult time."

Al-Hussayen, jailed since his arrest 14 months ago, spoke frequently with defense attorney David Nevin during jury selection. Several friends from Moscow, Idaho, were in the courtroom in a show of support.

"It's just a misunderstanding," said Samir Shahat, an Egyptian who came to know Al-Hussayen while a visiting researcher at the University of Idaho. "It is very difficult to believe that this innocent person can be such a monster."

The terrorism counts are punishable by up to 15 years each, the visa fraud charges by up to 25 years each and the false-statement counts by five years each. Al-Hussayen has been declared subject to deportation.

View CBS News In