Nearly three years after the U.S. government
failed to convict Palestinian activist and former college professor Sami al-Arian
of any charges in one of the most high-profile terrorism trials following the
9/11 terrorist attacks, he continues to be held in federal prison – where,
if convicted in an upcoming trial on criminal contempt charges, he faces the
prospect of remaining for decades.
Al-Arian has been imprisoned since Feb. 20, 2003, after then-attorney general
John Ashcroft declared in a press conference that he and four others were in
league with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, "one of the most violent terrorist
organizations in the world."
According to the U.S. government, al-Arian operated several front groups for
the Damascus-based terrorist group during the 1990s, raising money to finance
suicide bombings that killed more than 100 Israelis. At his trial, prosecutors
played graphic videos of suicide bombings and invited Israeli citizens to testify
about their experiences surviving terrorist attacks – attacks the government
suggested were the end result of al-Arian's actions.
Prosecutors also showed jurors a 1991 video of a rally where al-Arian can
be seen shouting "death to Israel and victory to Islam" in Arabic.
Al-Arian, a former professor at the University of South Florida, maintains
that he has never condoned violence against civilians, but that he does support
the right to resist a "brutal military occupation" of Palestinian
Indeed, even the prosecution conceded that – after more than 10 years
of tapping the phone conversations of al-Arian and his family – there
was no evidence directly tying him to a single terrorist attack. As a result,
in 2005 a Florida jury acquitted al-Arian of eight charges and remained deadlocked
on another nine, with two-thirds of the jury voting for acquittal on all charges.
Yet despite the lack of a single conviction, al-Arian remains in prison –
where supporters say he has often been held in solitary confinement and denied
access to his family and legal counsel – for refusing to testify in a
trial against a northern Virginia Islamic think tank.
"We don't even know one day where he'll be the next, and we don't know
how we'll be able to visit him," said al-Arian's son, Abdullah, at a recent
event here in Washington aimed at raising awareness of the case. "We just
want this ordeal to be over."
But if federal prosecutors have their way, al-Arian's ordeal will not be over
anytime soon. After accepting a plea bargain in 2006, where he pled guilty
to providing some assistance to friends and family "associated" with
the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – such as trying to help his brother-in-law,
Mazzen al-Najjar, obtain a visa – al-Arian was supposed to be deported
to Egypt last year.
However, federal prosecutors – namely, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon
Kromberg, who critics say has a long record of bigotry toward Arabs and Muslims
– have sought to force Al-Arian to testify in a case against the International
Institute of Islamic Thought, which is accused of financing terrorist organizations
al-Arian has refused to testify out of fear that prosecutors are simply seeking
to trap him into committing perjury.
"If he does testify, no matter what he says, the prosecutor will charge
him with perjury – he's made that pretty clear to us," said Abdullah.
"If he does not testify, he can be charged with contempt, and that was
the road that my father chose, one that was more principled I think in terms
of his taking a stand against the government's abuse of power."
Because of his refusal to testify, al-Arian is now set for an Aug. 13 trial
for criminal contempt. However his lawyer, George Washington University law
professor Jonathan Turley, says he has been barred from meeting with his client
and is seeking to have the trial delayed and al-Arian released.
In a motion filed Aug. 1, Turley – who is also seeking to take the case
to the Supreme Court – argues that al-Arian is being illegally detained
by authorities in contravention of a July 10 court decision, finding that he
posed no flight risk or threat to his community and should be granted bail.
"Put simply, Dr. al-Arian is being held unconstitutionally," Turley
states in the motion.
Al-Arian's supporters also maintain that he is a victim of a federal prosecutor
– Kromberg. During a 2005 trial, Kromberg told jurors that the defendant
in the case – Ali al-Timimi, a devout Muslim – could not be trusted,
as his religion required him to lie to non-believers.
And according to al-Arian's attorneys, Kromberg told them in a 2006 meeting
that he would not grant al-Arian's request that he not be forced to testify
before a grand jury during the Islamic holiday of Ramadan.
"If they can kill each other during Ramadan, they can appear before the
grand jury; all they can't do is eat before sunset," Kromberg is quoted
as telling al-Arian's legal counsel. "I am not going to put off Dr. al-Arian's
grand jury appearance to assist in what is becoming the Islamization of America."
Critics say Kromberg's comments – and his unabashed support for the state
of Israel – show that his targeting of al-Arian is based on politics,
"He's been singled out because he's been an effective, courageous man,"
said Mike Gravel, a former U.S. senator from Alaska, at the event with al-Arian's
family. Like other supporters, Gravel believes Al-Arian is the victim of a
politicized Justice Department eager to silence a controversial and outspoken
critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
In an interview with IPS, Gravel said he was "absolutely outraged over
the injustice" of the government's treatment of al-Arian. He also singled
out as "gutless" members of Congress – such as Senate Judiciary
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont – who have refused
to take any action on al-Arian's behalf.
Since Democrats took over control of Congress, Leahy's committee has held
hearings on everything from polygamy to the rights of prisoners at Guantanamo
Bay, but none regarding al-Arian.
An aide to Leahy told IPS that his office continues to receive calls from
al-Arian's supporters, but offered no comment on what – if any –
action Leahy would take regarding the case.
"This all stems from AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee],"
Gravel told IPS. Lawmakers are afraid of offending the powerful lobbying group
– which supports a hard-line position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
in line with Israel's right-wing Likud Party – and thus are unwilling
to take up al-Arian's case, he said. "This guy is just speaking out very
effectively for the Palestinian cause, that's what is the root of this, and
[the government is] trying to stifle that."
Gravel's comments on the case are echoed by Scott Horton, a former chair of
the of the New York City Bar Association's Committee on International Law and
a writer for Harper's magazine.
"I believe that the defense is on firm ground saying that this is a case
of political persecution," Horton stated in an interview with IPS. "In
fact, I am hard pressed to find another case just like it."
Horton believes al-Arian has been targeted not because he poses any sort of
violent threat, but because he has been a high-profile and articulate critic
of Israeli policies. And he believes the case shows that – especially
since 9/11 and the advent of the "war on terror" – not even
an acquittal is enough to exonerate someone accused of terrorism in the U.S.
"The prosecution's conduct is typical of the Bush administration …
in that it will not accept defeat, whether from a jury or a judge," stated
Horton. "When they fail to get the relief they seek, they simply connive
another way to secure it."
At the Washington event, al-Arian's son Abdullah said that, at this point,
the best his family could hope for is that the government ultimately decides
to deport his father, as they promised to do in the 2006 plea agreement. "It's
a sad day when you have to leave America to be free, but that's the America
we live in – for some people at least."
(Inter Press Service)