A political prosecution against a Palestinian-American activist and University of South Florida professor, which began in February 2003, appeared to come to an end on June 27 as the United States government announced it was dropping all charges against him.
Sami Al-Arian’s family declared in a statement, “We are glad that the government has finally decided to drop the charges.”
“It has been a long and difficult 11 years for our family in what has ultimately been shown to be a political case,” they added. “We are relieved that this ordeal finally appears to be at an end. We hope that today’s events bring to a conclusion the government’s pursuit of Dr. Al-Arian and that he can finally be able to resume his life with his family in freedom.”
Al-Arian’s attorney, Jonathan Turley, wrote, “I have represented Dr. Al-Arian for roughly eight years as we fought for his deportation and the dismissal of these charges. We have litigated the case from the 11th Circuit to the 4th Circuit to the Supreme Court and back again. It has been a long and difficult road for the Al-Arian family.”
On February 20, 2003, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced in a press conference that Al-Arian and “seven co-conspirators” were “in the leadership of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” a “US government designated foreign terrorist organization, committed suicide bombings and violent jihad activities,” and charged with terrorism-related crimes.
“As the indictment details,” Ashcroft stated, “the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is responsible for the murder of over 100 innocent people in Israel and the Occupied Territories, including at least two young Americans, Alisa Flatow, age 20, and Shoshana Ben-Yishai, age 16. FBI agents have arrested the four defendants who are located in the United States, including the North American leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Sami Al-Arian. Searches also are underway in six locations in the Tampa area and one location in Illinois.”
A fifty count indictment, he said, showed the “eight defendants” had operated a “racketeering enterprise from 1984 until the present that supported numerous violent terrorist activities associated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”
“Our record on terrorist support networks is clear: We will hunt down the suppliers of terrorist money, we will shut down these sources, and we will ensure that both terrorists and their financiers meet the same, swift, certain justice of the United States of America,” Ashcroft boasted.
For The Nation, Laila Al-Arian, his daughter, described how the government’s pursuit brought fear and paranoia to an entire Muslim community:
As the government built its case against my father, FBI agents interrogated one Muslim family after another. Overwhelming fear pervaded the community. My father, a pillar of that community, had founded and run an Islamic school near the mosque where he also led prayers. After the arrest, my mother, Nahla, was asked to withdraw my younger siblings from the school that she and my father had worked so hard to build. Returning for a visit, my mother was asked what she was doing there. Shopping for groceries, she saw a longtime friend turn her back to avoid talking to her. “It was shocking and depressing,” my mother recalls.
Sami Al-Arian was held in pre-trial detention at the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex in Florida and subjected to conditions of solitary confinement.
Amnesty International wrote a letter to the Federal Bureau of Prisons calling the conditions of his imprisonment “gratuitously punitive” and raising concerns about: how his hands were always shackled behind his back forcing him to bend forward and carry papers on his back when meeting with his attorney; how he was subject to routine strip searches; how he was denied access to pencils and paper.
In December 2005, a Tampa jury declined to find Al-Arian guilty of any of the 50 counts he faced. He was found not guilty of “conspiring to kill people overseas” and other “terrorist support, perjury and immigration violations.”
The jury, according to the New York Times, was “deadlocked on the remaining nine counts against him after deliberating for 13 days, and it did not return any guilty verdicts against the three other defendants in the case.”
Al-Arian had been the subject of a federal investigation by the FBI since 1995 and the government had “some 20,000 hours of taped conversations” from wiretaps on him and his associates. The government had twenty-one witnesses from Israel testify against him. Yet, the government still was unable to come up with evidence that would convince the jury that he had financed and directed terrorist attacks in Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
It was a moment for his family to celebrate. Ahmed Bedier, director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) declared, “This was a very important case for us in that it tested both the Patriot Act and the right to political activity.
“The jury is sending a statement that even in post-9/11 America, the justice system works, the burden of proof is on the prosecution, and political association—while it may be unpopular to associate oneself with controversial views—is still not illegal in this country.”
This statement should have ended the government’s political prosecution, but the statement from the jury was too embarrassing. The Justice Department intended to continue its pursuit and retry him on the unresolved counts. That prompted Al-Arian to attempt to hammer out a plea deal that would bring this to an end.
“Dr. Al- Arian executed a written plea agreement on February 28, 2006,” according to Turley. He pled guilty to a count in a superseding indictment that had been issued in September 2004. It “largely dealt with a statement that Dr. Al- Arian made to a reporter and his support with an immigration matter for a person ‘associated’” with PIJ.
“The count notably did not admit to any of the core terrorism charges levied against him regarding alleged leadership in PIJ and the other terrorism acts,” Turley recounted. His deportation would be expedited.
Sami’s wife, Nahla, said of the plea agreement, “Sami came to this country 31 years ago in pursuit of the American dream. I’m saddened that we will be leaving the country we love and have called home for most of our lives. However, I’m very much looking forward to being reunited with my husband and once again living as a family in freedom.”
But US District Judge James Moody regarded him as a “master manipulator,” who had led a double life as a professor and a terrorist. He vindicated the political prosecution of Al-Arian and sentenced him to the longest amount of prison time possible under the deal: 57 months.
That was not the end of the Justice Department’s pursuit. Though Al-Arian had managed to get a clause in the plea agreement that he would not cooperate in any investigation, he was called to testify before a grand jury empaneled in the Eastern District of Virginia.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, on September 18, 2006, Jack Fernandez, his Tampa attorney, asked if the testimony could be delayed until after Ramadan.
Gordon Kromberg, the US Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia, replied, “If they can kill each other during Ramadan, they can appear before the grand jury, all they can’t do is eat before sunset. I believe Mr. Al-Arian’s request is part of the attempted Islamization of the American Justice System. I am not going to put off Dr. Al-Arian’s grand jury appearance just to assist in what is becoming the Islamization of America.”
Al-Arian appeared before the grand jury on October 19. He was asked about an Islamic think tank in northern Virginia but refused to answer any questions.
Two more times he was called before the grand jury. Each time he refused to provide testimony. He was charged with contempt, making it possible for the Justice Department to further extend his imprisonment.
The defense for Al-Arian filed a motion to dismiss the contempt charge and Judge Leonie Brinkema was sympathetic to the arguments, which pointed to how the government had violated the plea agreement by removing a cooperation clause. She said what the government had done was “at the heart of the case” and ordered the government to produce evidence related to the 2006 plea negotiations.
From mid-2009 to June 27, 2014, the case was in limbo. Al-Arian’s attorneys managed to free him from prison and have him placed in home confinement. He had those conditions lifted some time after June 2012. Yet, a dark cloud of government prosecution still hung over his head.
Turley characterized what Al-Arian survived as “one of the most troubling chapters in this nation’s crackdown after 9/11.”
“Despite the jury verdict and the agreement reached to allow Dr. Al-Arian to leave the country, the Justice Department continued to fight for his incarceration and for a trial in this case,” Turley stated. “It will remain one of the most disturbing cases of my career in terms of the actions taken by our government.”
Al-Arian’s “disturbing case,” however, is not the only one of its kind. Laila Al-Arian placed her father’s prosecution in the context of the administration of President George W. Bush’s decision to shut down of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which had been the largest Muslim charity in the United States, and prosecute its members. She connected her father’s case to cases, where the FBI had deployed informants to frame and entrap people—as the FBI did in the case of Kurdish immigrant Yassin Aref.
In fact, a recent study by the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF) and Project Salam found that nearly ninety-five percent of individuals on a Justice Department list of “terrorism and terrorism-related convictions” from 2001-2010 were preemptive prosecutions. That means the defendants were pursued because of their beliefs, ideology or religious affiliation.
As Sami Al-Arian highlighted in a 2009 speech to the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression in Norway, Arab and Muslim communities “have been targeted because of their beliefs and opinions.”
…Fear has defined this community and become the hallmark in far too many homes, mosques, and places of work. Members of these communities cannot trust each other because of the government’s continuous efforts to harass their leaders, infiltrate their places of worship and institutions, and attack or shut down their organizations. They refrain from speaking about politics with each other. Or when they do, they whisper to each other, feeling extremely uneasy to talk freely because they fear, justifiably I might add, that their phones, emails, and other means of communications are being constantly monitored. Far too many people can’t speak their minds or publicly express their opinions for fear of being targeted by the authorities. This situation is not imaginary. But community after community in many states have been targeted and intimidated. Such a state of affairs is the conventional definition of a police state. When people start fearing their government, looking over their shoulders, afraid of the five o’clock in the morning knock on the door, losing their sense of privacy. Whether such fear is irrational or not, such state of affairs surely cannot represent democratic ideals and values. Again according to the author of the American Declaration of Independence, that’s the classical definition of “tyranny.”…
Al-Arian also proclaimed, “I strove to be a voice and advocate for the Palestinian victim, denied his or her basic human rights. In the process, I’ve tried to uphold the great values of my faith and culture and the honored ideals and principles of a free society.”
“I’m very proud and grateful to have been able to contribute positively in many endeavors. But a free society would pass or fail its ultimate test based on how it treats unpopular opinions and dissent during times of crisis.”
“To be a Palestinian or a Muslim in America today is a challenge, and history will ultimately render its judgment on how Palestinians and Muslims in America were treated during this time of crisis. A resilient democracy admits its mistakes and takes corrective action rather than arrogantly deviating from its professed values and ideals,” Al-Arian concluded.