By William Fisher
In a nationwide press conference in 2003, George W. Bush’s attorney general, the born-again John Ashcroft, trumpeted the arrest of Dr. Sami al-Arian, who he described as “the most dangerous man in the world.”
In announcing the 120-page indictment, Ashcroft charged that al-Arian and his three co-defendants played “a substantial role in international terrorism…They finance … and assist acts of terror. Our message to them is clear: We make no distinction between those who carry out terrorist attacks, and those who knowingly finance, manage, or supervise terrorist organizations.” He charged that al-Arian had been actively funding terrorist attacks in Israel as the US leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
All that was nine years ago. Nine years. And, in one form or another, Dr. al-Arian has pretty much been incarcerated ever since.
Incarcerated not in some tinpot dictatorship, but in the United States of America. The same America that prides itself on the fairness and integrity of its criminal justice system and the rule of law.
As Glenn Greenwald wrote in Salon: “Each time it appears that [al-Arian’s] plight will finally be over, the U.S. Government concocts a new process to ensure that he remains a prisoner.”
This is how it happened:
Rewind to the mid-1990s. That’s when the FBI began its decade-long surveillance of Dr. al-Arian. A Palestinian born in Kuwait, al-Arian was in the U.S.as a permanent resident. He was well-known in the Muslim Community throughout the United States, popular among his students at the University of South Florida (USF), where he was a tenured professor of computer engineering. At the same time, his reputation as a well-informed Palestinian was growing among members of Congress and advisors to President Clinton, who invited him to the White House.
Things began to turn sour for al-Arian after his university tried to fire him following his guest appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s show, The Factor, on Fox News. It was clear that USF was looking for a pretext to make the al-Arian story go away. The DOJ finally indicted al-Arian on Feb, 20, 2003, and accused him of backing organizations fronting for Palestinian Islamic Jihad – a 1997 State Department-designated “Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).”
It charged al-Arian with multiple counts of conspiracies to provide material support for this organization. The mountain of wiretaps, emails, speeches, lectures, and much more the FBI collected from Dr. al-Arian, would constitute the government’s case against him.
A week after al-Arian’s indictment, University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft fired him with the backing of then Governor Jeb Bush, and pressure from a vocal segment of the “Israel right or wrong” US foreign policy establishment.
despite the Constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial, the court case didn’t begin until 28 months later, during which al-Arian was held in solitary confinement.
And despite the Constitutional guarantee of a speedy trial, the court case didn’t begin until 28 months later, during which al-Arian was held in solitary confinement. He was locked in a small, windowless cell for 23 hours each day. So harsh were the conditions of his imprisonment that Amnesty International was compelled to write US prosecutors, “calling for a review of the pre-trial detention conditions…aspects of which it said appeared to be gratuitously punitive,’ ” and a breach of international standards.
The period leading up to the trial was marked by shrill and frequently inaccurate public accusations against al-Arian. Many of the more outrageous came from Fox News and from Steve Emerson, a self-styled “terrorism expert” best known for his off-the-wall predictions of impending terrorist attacks on the homeland. Emerson runs a not-for-profit outfit called The Investigative Project on Terrorism, and also has a for-profit company that does corporate and government consulting.
Among some of his more notorious claims, Emerson told a reporter shortly after the 1995 Oklahoma Citybombing that he believed the perpetrators were likely Islamic terrorists. The reporter, Tampa Tribune‘s Michael Fechter, wrote: “More and more, terrorism experts in the United States and elsewhere say Wednesday’s bombing inOklahoma City bears the characteristics of other deadly attacks linked to Islamic militants.” Fechter now works for Emerson’s Investigative Project.
The blogosphere was also alive with right-left battles over the al-Arian case. The mainstream print press appeared to be as clueless as usual in its coverage of legal proceedings. As it struggled to understand the legalese of the courtroom, it frequently elected to write about the easier-to-understand personal conflicts of the principals in the case, or turn to accessible but unreliable sources, such as Emerson. And as for cable news, including Fox, most coverage was reduced to minimally-informative sound bites.
But the tone of the press coverage, often quoting government officials, seemed to guarantee that the post-9/11 hysteria would frame the al-Arian trial as if the government had designed it.
Fox News Channel, NBC, Media General (specifically itsTampa newspaper) and the giant radio conglomerate, Clear Channel Communications (home of Rush Limbaugh’s broadcasts) shoulder an especially heavy burden for fanning the flames of post-9/11 hysteria.
As Eric Boehlert wrote in Salon, “In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, all four media giants, eagerly tapping into the country’s mood of vengeance and fear, latched onto the al-Arian story, fudging the facts and ignoring the most rudimentary tenets of journalism in their haste to better tell a sinister story about lurking Middle Eastern dangers here at home.”
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, all four media giants, eagerly tapping into the country’s mood of vengeance and fear, latched onto the al-Arian story, fudging the facts and ignoring the most rudimentary tenets of journalism in their haste to better tell a sinister story about lurking Middle Eastern dangers here at home.
The impact of its battles with the US justice system on al-Arian’s family was profound. Leila al-Arian, one of three al-Arian daughters, told this reporter that “the adversity our family experienced brought us all much closer together. We had to depend on one another for emotional support.”
Leila, a journalist who lives in Washington, DC, said raising money for her father’s legal defense fund was probably the most stressful activity the family had to take on. “We knew just about nothing about raising money. Asking for financial help is a humbling experience.”
“What made it bearable – and successful – was the spirit and goodwill of so many people who offered to help. A woman in Tampa organized demonstrations in support of my father. A man in California, who had only a passing acquaintance with my father, became one of the national voices in his support. There were so many and many of them didn’t know us at all. They were just appalled by what was happening to my Dad,” she said.
Once al-Arian’s trial actually began, the prosecution called 80 witnesses, including more than 20 from Israel. Much of the government’s evidence presented to the jury during the six-month trial consisted of Dr. al-Arian’s speeches, lectures, articles, magazines, books he owned, and accounts of conferences he convened, rallies he attended, interviews he gave, and parts of hundreds of wiretapped phone calls from over a half million recorded.
When the defense’s turn came to present its case, it rested. It called not a single witness in its behalf. Its sole defense was that all of al-Arian’s written and spoken words were protected speech under the First Amendment.
After 13 days of deliberation, the jury found him innocent on eight of the charges, including the most serious, and hung on the rest, voting 10 to 2 to acquit.
After 13 days of deliberation, the jury found him innocent on eight of the charges, including the most serious, and hung on the rest, voting 10 to 2 to acquit. Two of Al Arian’s three co-defendants were acquitted completely.
The total collapse of the government’s case could only be seen as a devastating embarrassment for the Department of Justice (DOJ), which had spent an estimated $50-$80 million. Observers of the trial believe the DOJ won an expensive humiliation.
But the DOJ’s intent to re-try al-Arian led him to strike a secret plea bargain. He was desperate to avoid both the emotional and financial cost of a new trial to himself and his family. The essence of the plea deal was that al-Arian neither engaged in or had any knowledge of violent acts; that he would not be required to cooperate further with prosecutors; and that he would be released on time served and deported voluntarily to his country of choice.
In the meantime, al-Arian remained in custody pending sentencing and deportation. He expected to be freed on May 1, 2006. But the presiding judge changed the deal. He sentenced al-Arian to the maximum 57 months, gave him credit for time served, and ordered him held for the remaining 11 months, after which an April 2007 deportation would follow.
In October 2006, assistant prosecutor Gordon Kromberg violated the plea bargain terms by subpoenaing Al-Arian before a grand jury. His defense attorneys tried to block it by citing his “no-grand jury cooperation” promise. But prosecutors gutted the cooperation clause from the agreement, which was made during plea negotiations (when to prevent the DOJ from springing a perjury-obstruction trap). The defense’s motion was denied, and on November 16 Al-Arian again refused to testify and again was held in civil contempt.
A month later, the grand jury expired, a new one was convened, and al-Arian was again subpoenaed to testify. He continued to refuse, was held in contempt, and had his sentence increased by an additional year to April 7, 2008.
On March 3, 2008, Kromberg ordered al-Arian before still another March 19 grand jury, three weeks before his scheduled release and deportation. On the same day, al-Arian began his third hunger strike against the government’s continued harassment. For a man with diabetes, lack of food is life-threatening; he needs regular sustenance to avoid serious health problems. Al-Arian’s January through March, 2007 hunger strike had depleted a quarter of his body weight. His family says it gravely harmed him, and ended only at their urging.
Twenty days into his latest fast, and having lost 30 pounds, al-Arian was shuttled to various medical facilities. On March 18, he was returned to Warsaw, Virginia’s Northern Neck Regional jail ahead of his third grand jury appearance. Again, he refused to testify.
Because he refused to testify before a federal grand jury after the court held that he had no legal basis for refusing, in November 2006 he was held in civil contempt and imprisoned by a federal court judge in Virginia. He served 13 months on this charge until the court lifted its contempt order in December 2007. In June of 2008, at the behest of Kromberg, al-Arian was indicted on two counts of criminal contempt for not testifying.
In September 2008, al-Arian was released from detention on bond. He remains under house arrest as he awaits trial on criminal contempt charges
In September 2008, al-Arian was released from detention on bond. He remains under house arrest as he awaits trial on criminal contempt charges. For the first time in over five years, he was reunited with his family, but his ordeal continues. On this occasion alone, he has been waiting for his day in court for more than three years.
The Virginia grand jury that al-Arian has refused to appear before was investigating a Herndon, Va.-based think tank, the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), and its alleged terrorism financing and support networks.
The government claims IIIT gave money to a PIJ-related think tank in Tampa that al-Arian once ran. During the mid 1990s, this think tank employed several PIJ members, the government said, including Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, who left Tampa in 1995 for Syri at to assume leadership of PIJ. The PIJ affiliations of Shallah and others were acknowledged by al-Arian in his plea agreement.
At the time, his attorney, Professor Jonathan Turley, called the Justice Department’s ploy “a classic perjury trap used repeatedly by the government to punish those individuals who could not be convicted before an American jury.”
Obama’s prosecutors proved to be as ruthless as their predecessors. For example, DOJ asked the Court to deny a defense motion, filed 18 months earlier, to dismiss criminal contempt charges. Three previous DOJ motions were rejected.
This time, Holder prosecutors not only requested denying the defense’s dismissal motion, but asked Judge Brinkema to reverse her earlier decision letting al-Arian’s attorneys present evidence in case of trial.
In March 2009, she backed the defense’s request to file a motion to dismiss al-Arian’s charges, saying she’d rule later at further hearings, and expressing concern over government “bait and switch” tactics: “where Dr. al-Arian and his counsel were assured that, if he agreed to plead guilty (to one minor charge), he would not be subject to any further involvement with the DOJ beyond his deportation following the completion of his sentence.” Bush prosecutors reneged on the agreement and Obama’s lawyers followed suit. Judge Brinkema has never ruled on this request.
Al-Arian’s former appeals attorney, Professor Peter Erlinder, a former president of the National Lawyers Guild, said:
“The prosecution of Dr. Sami al-Arian was a blatant attempt to silence political speech and dissent in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy. The nature of the political persecution of this case has been demonstrated throughout all its aspects, not only during the trial and the never-ending right-wing media onslaught, but also after the stunning defeat of the government in 2005, and its ill-advised abuse of the grand jury system thereafter.”
Others who have followed the al-Arian case are equally critical. For example, Lawrence Davidson, professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania, told this reporter, “Bush thoroughly corrupted the Justice Department by stacking it with Christian Fundamentalists on the one hand and rabid Zionists on the other.”
He added, “The al-Arian case is a classical case of injustice and ideological corruption of the justice system. The judge (appointed by Bill Clinton) as well as the prosecutors should be disbarred. Everyone on the government side acted unethically, if not illegally.”
There is at least one further irony in the seemingly endless prosecution of Dr. al-Arian. Early in his trial, the judge ruled that information concerning the Israeli-Palestinian dispute could not be admitted as evidence. Yet that dispute is at the very center of the case and of al-Arian’s life. Were there no Israeli-Palestinian dispute, there would be no trial.
One wonders why al-Arian and not someone else? Glenn Greenwald gives a plausible explanation:
“In reality, al-Arian has been persecuted for one reason only: because he’s a Palestinian activist highly critical of the four-decade brutal Israeli occupation.”
This article originally appeared on the pages of the Prism Magazine website.