March 3 / 4, 2007
A Federal Witchhunt
The Persecution of Sami Al-Arian
By ALEXANDER COCKBURN
One of the first big show trials here in the post-9/11 homeland was of a Muslim professor from Florida, now 49, Sami al-Arian. Pro-Israel hawks had resented this computer professor at the University of South Florida long before Atta and the hijackers flew their planes into the Trade towers, because they saw al-Arian, a Palestinian born in Kuwait of parents kicked out of their Homeland in 1948, as an effective agitator here for the Palestinian cause. As John Sugg, a fine journalist, then based in Tampa, who's followed al-Arian's tribulations for years, wrote in the spring of 2006 on this website:
"When was al-Arian important? More than a decade ago, when Israel's Likudniks in the United States, such as [Steven] Emerson, were working feverishly to undermine the Oslo peace process. No Arab voice could be tolerated, and al-Arian was vigorously trying to communicate with our government and its leaders. He was being successful, making speeches to intelligence and military commanders at MacDill AFB's Central Command, inviting the FBI and other officials to attend meetings of his groups. People were beginning to listen and to wonder why only one side of the Middle East debate was heard here. That was the reason for Al-Arian's political prosecution."
Now the United States is a country that is blessed by a constitution, a Bill of Rights and the rule of law, all of them upheld with degrees of enthusiasm that rise and fall according to sex, income and ethnicity. The fall is particularly drastic if your name is Arab, you publicly profess the justice of the Palestinian cause. Living in Florida doesn't help either.
At the direct instigation of Attorney General Ashcroft, the feds threw the book at al-Arian in February 2003. He was arrested with much fanfare and charged in a bloated terrorism and conspiracy case. He spent two and a half years in prison, in solitary confinement under atrocious conditions. To confer with his lawyers, he had to hobble half a mile, shackled hand and foot, his law files balanced on his back.
The six-month trial in US District Court in Tampa featured 80 government witnesses (including 21 from Israel) and 400 intercepted phone calls (the results of a decade of surveillance and half a million recorded calls). The government's evidence against Al-Arian consisted of speeches he gave, magazines he edited, lectures he presented, articles he wrote, books he owned, conferences he organized, rallies he attended, news he heard and websites no one accessed. One bit of evidence consisted of a conversation a co-defendant had with al-Arian in his dream. The defense rested without calling a single witness or presenting any evidence since the government's case rested entirely on First Amendmentprotected activities.
The man presiding over al-Arian's trial was US District Court Judge James Moody, a creature from the dark lagoon of Floridian jurisprudence. Hospitable to all testimony from Israelis, Moody ruled that al-Arian and his associates could not say a single word about the military occupation or the plight of the Palestinian people. During closing arguments, the prosecution noted a document that mentioned UN Resolution 242. Moody nixed that on the grounds that it showed Palestinians in altogether too warm a light and therefore might tax the objectivity of the jurors. As Sugg wrote after that ruling, if MLK had been on trial in Judge Moody's courtroom for disturbing the peace, he wouldn't have been allowed to mention Jim Crow or lynchings.
In December 2005, despite Moody's diligence, the jury acquitted al-Arian of the most serious charges. On those remaining, the usual prosecutorial flailings under conspiracy statutes, jurors voted 10 to 2 for acquittal. Two co-defendants were acquitted completely. It was a terrible humiliation for the Justice Department, which had flung an estimated $50 million into the trial.
A jury split 10-2 in a defendant's favor doesn't augur well for conviction in a retrial. Indeed in the spring of 2006 the government declined to retry a wealthy Tampa businessman (the founder of Hooters) on tax evasion charges because the jury was hung 6 to 6, and therefore the proportion was too high to realistically expect a conviction during a retrial.
But the feds insisted they wanted to put al-Arian through the wringer again and -- prudently, given Moody's prejudice-al-Arian's lawyers urged him to make a plea and put an end to his ordeal and end the suffering of his family.
The terms of the plea agreement were in line with Al-Arian's long-standing contention, despite the government's accusations, that he never contributed to the violent actions of any organization. The government settled for a watered-down version of a single count of providing services to people associated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Statement of Facts in the agreement included only these innocuous activities:
(1) hiring an attorney for his brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, during his deportation hearings in the late 1990s;
(2) filling out immigration forms for a resident Palestinian scholar from Britain; and
(3) not disclosing details of associations to a local reporter. (I remain completely baffled as to why it should be a crime to withhold information from a newspaper reporter.)
A central aspect of the plea agreement was an understanding that al-Arian would not be subject to further prosecution or called to cooperate with the government on any matter. The government recommended the shortest possible sentence.
On May 1, 2006, al-Arian came before Judge Moody for sentencing. Watching the proceedings Sugg, as he reported on the CounterPunch website, noted a smug air among the prosecutors. He also noted that Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez had arrived in the Tampa area five days earlier. Under the plea, al-Arian's sentence amounted to little more than time served, followed by his departure from the United States. But Judge Moody sentenced al-Arian to the maximum, using inflamed language about al-Arian having blood on his hands, a charge one juror said the jury emphatically rejected.
Now al-Arian faced eleven months more in prison, with release and deportation scheduled for April 2007. But the feds' appetite was far from slaked. In October, Gordon Kromberg, an assistant federal prosecutor in Virginia notorious as an Islamophobe, called al-Arian to testify before a grand jury investigating an Islamic think tank. The subpoena was a outright violation of al-Arian's April plea agreement and his attorneys filed a motion to quash it. The motion included affidavits by attorneys who participated in the negotiations attesting to the fact that "the overarching purpose of the parties' plea agreement was to conclude, once and for all, all business between the government and Dr. al-Arian." The defense lawyers insisted that al-Arian would never have entered a plea that left him vulnerable to government fishing expeditions.
Al-Arian's lawyers feared that their client was being set up for a perjury trap. Up in Virginia, Kromberg ranted to al-Arian's attorney about "the Islamization of America," while down in Tampa, Judge Moody ruled that federal marshals could drag al-Arian to Virginia to testify. On November 16, al-Arian was brought before the grand jury and placed in civil contempt for refusing to testify.
One month after al-Arian was placed in civil contempt, the grand jury term expired, so Kromberg promptly impaneled a new one. Al-Arian was again subpoenaed and again expressed his ethical stance against testifying. This judge also held him in contempt, which could prolong his imprisonment by up to 18 months.
Al-Arian, who is diabetic, then went on a hunger strike. February 26 marked the sixth week of his water-only hunger strike, in which he has lost 40 pounds and has grown considerably weaker. On the 23rd day of his hunger strike, Al-Arian collapsed and hit his head; he has since been moved to a federal prison medical facility in Butner, North Carolina.
On January 22, when Al-Arian appeared before Judge Lee on the charge of contempt, he had this to say about his recent treatment:
"In the past three weeks, I have been to four prisons. I spent fourteen days in the Atlanta penitentiary under 23-hour lockdown, in a roach and rat infested environment. On two occasions, rats shared my diabetic snack. When I was transported from Atlanta to Petersburg (Virginia) and from Petersburg to Alexandria, they allowed me only to wear a t-shirt in subfreezing weather during long walks. In the early morning, the Atlanta guard took my thermal undershirt which I purchased from the prison and threw it in the garbage and when I complained, he threatened to use a lockbox on my handcuffs which would make them extremely uncomfortable. In Petersburg, the guard asked me to take off my clean t-shirt and boxers and gave me dirty and worn out ones. When I complained, he told me to 'shut the f up.' And when I asked why he was treating me like that, he said 'because you're a terrorist.' When I further complained to the lieutenant in charge, he shrugged it off and said if I don't like it, I should write a grievance to the Bureau of Prisons. When I said he had the authority to give me clean clothes, he refused and said if I don't like it I should write a grievance to the Bureau of Prisons. During one of the airlifts, an air marshal further tightened my already tightened handcuffs, and asked me 'Why do you hate us?' I told him, 'I don't hate you.' He said, 'I know who you are, I've read your s-h-i-t.' These are examples of the government's harassment campaign against me that's been taking place for years because of my political beliefs."
Measured against José Padilla, a man driven insane on Rumsfeld's orders, I guess al-Arian is lucky. He's alive, and still sane, though getting weaker by the day. He needs all the support we can muster. Across the globe, where al-Arian's case has aroused much outrage, respect for the US commitment to Constitutional freedoms sinks lower still.
For information on the case, go to www.freesamialarian.com.