Palestinian activist and former university professor
Sami Al-Arian was arraigned Monday in US federal court on two counts of criminal
contempt for his refusal to testify in a grand jury investigation of a Northern
Virginia Muslim think-tank.
The indictment is the latest episode of a long, Kafka-esque process that has
violated nearly every tenet of Al-Arian's plea agreement following the end of
his first trial in 2005, and kept Al-Arian in prison for over five years.
"The government has made a complete mockery of the plea agreement,"
Al-Arian's attorney, Jonathan Turley, told IPS. "Dr. Al-Arian has received
zero benefit from his plea agreement."
Supporters of Al-Arian cited the charges as an attempt by an overzealous Justice
Department prosecutor to keep Al-Arian behind bars indefinitely despite an inability
to secure a jury conviction. There is no maximum penalty for criminal contempt.
"The whole case against him is a vindictive act by sore losers that lost
the Florida case badly because there was no evidence," Al-Arian's daughter,
Laila, told IPS. "So they're manufacturing crimes to keep him in prison
as long as possible. It's almost as if the whole plea agreement was just a way
to buy time."
The indictment said that Al-Arian had refused to testify in violation of a
court order. But Al-Arian's defense holds that his subpoena was out of line
with his original agreement, which included an express promise that Al-Arian
did not have to cooperate further with the government.
On Monday, Al-Arian was moved from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
jail to the Alexandria courthouse where he was arraigned. He had been in ICE
custody for over three months awaiting an expedited deportation as part of the
In ICE prisons, which have been the target of frequent criticism for their
harsh conditions, Al-Arian was only allowed one visitor per month. When arraigned
on Monday, Al-Arian and his defense did not enter a plea because they had not
had the chance to discuss the charges yet, Turley wrote on his blog. The court
entered a not guilty plea.
The think-tank, the International Institute for Islamic Thought (IIIT), is
under investigation for alleged ties to terrorism. Al-Arian's defense contends
that he gave two affidavits making clear that he has no knowledge of crimes
committed by IIIT, and he has offered to take a polygraph lie-detection test
to back them up.
Turley told IPS that this constituted cooperation and that Gordon Kromberg,
the assistant US attorney who signed the indictments, had agreed sending
Turley an e-mail saying that it looked like the proposed resolution would work.
The next day, Turley learned of the indictments from the media.
Kromberg has been criticized for prosecutorial abuses ranging from stoking
Islamophobia among jurors to get convictions, to outright anti-Muslim comments
as recorded in court motions, and perhaps most shockingly punishing
defendants that a jury will not convict.
In 1999, at a Cato Institute event on asset forfeiture reform to curb abuses,
Kromberg spoke out in favor of broad governmental powers to seize belongings.
In Reason Magazine, Michael Lynch's retelling of the Cato event noted that jaws
hit the floor when Kromberg, opposed by much of the crowd in defending forfeiture,
said that prosecutors should be able to punish wrongdoing if they are convinced
"He knew these people were guilty and was certain they needed to be punished,"
Lynch paraphrased Kromberg's position. "Should we let these people get
away, he asked, before answering in an illuminating way: Not if we can punish
them through other means."
While the forfeiture battle was a far cry from prosecuting terrorism suspects,
Kromberg's assertions about prosecutorial powers is germane to Al-Arian's case
in that it reveals his thinking about punishing those he deems guilty even if
a jury refuses to do so.
Critics also accuse Kromberg of having an anti-Muslim bias, springing in part,
they say, from a strong affinity for Israel.
Kromberg participated in a United Jewish Committee's mission to Israel and
kept a diary in which he writes of visiting sites of previous terrorist attacks
and discusses some of the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the diary, Kromberg refers to the occupied territories of the West Bank
by the name "Judea and Samaria" a term favored by right-wing
Israelis who often oppose land concessions and a two-state solution and
referred to "the enthusiasm of the Palestinians to use mass murder as a
tool against the Israelis for no apparent end other than to destroy Israel."
Al-Arian has been significantly engaged in Muslim and Palestinian activism
since the late 1970s.
In a court motion, one of Al-Arian's legal team quoted Kromberg as saying,
"If they [Muslims] can kill each other during Ramadan, they can appear
before the grand jury," in response to request that Al-Arian's jail transfer
be delayed until after the Muslim holy month had ended.
Al-Arian was initially arrested in 2003 and kept in jail for two and half years
before his first trial on terrorism charges.
The George W. Bush administration was embarrassed when it couldn't secure a
single conviction in one of its highest-profile terrorism cases against the
man who then-attorney general John Ashcroft accused of being the head of a Palestinian
Facing retrial on the deadlocked charges, Al-Arian decided to spare his family
the agony of another long trial ordeal by pleading to a lesser charge of aiding
associates of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and directly aiding the group before
its designation as a terrorist organization. by the US in 1997.
But Al-Arian set conditions for his agreement. Witnessing the strains that
his imprisonment and trial had put on his own family, he refused to work with
the government on other cases. He also demanded an expedited deportation when
the sentence for his guilty plea expired.
Melva Underbakke, the head of a Tampa-based rights organization who drove nine
hours to attend the arraignment, said, "You got the feeling [Al-Arian]
has been through this before. The Al-Arian family is amazing. They looked strong."
Al-Arian will have a hearing next week to determine if he can be released on
bond pending trail. The government opposes this, but Al-Arian's legal team contends
that he is not a flight risk.
"Dr. Al-Arian (1) has lived in this country for over 30 years; (2) had
lawful alien status; (3) has family with deep ties in the country; (4) has citizens
willing to serve in a custodial status; (5) has no passport; and (6) is willing
to be continually monitored under home confinement. The opposition of the government
is purely gratuitous and retaliatory under such conditions," wrote Turley
in his blog.