By Chris Hedges
The Democrats may have taken control of the House and Senate, but we still live in George Bush’s America. It is an America the imprisoned Palestinian activist Dr. Sami Al-Arian, who has spent over two years in isolation, knows intimately. Dr. Al-Arian, who was a tenured professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida until being fired, was given the maximum sentence earlier this year for what the judge, in a case that bordered on the farcical, said was his support of a radical Palestinian organization.
The imprisoned professor, who will be deported when he is released, was to have spent 57 months in prison. But his time now seems likely to be extended since, despite plea bargaining that should have exempted him from further testimony, he has been called to testify before a secret grand jury in Virginia investigating Islamic organizations in the state. It is the newest twist in a case that has become emblematic of the repression meted out to America’s Muslim minority.
Al-Arian endured a six-month show trial in Florida that saw the government’s case collapse in a mass of contradictions and innuendo. During the trial the government called 80 witnesses and subjected the jury to hundreds of hours of often inane phone transcriptions and recordings, made over a 10-year period, which the jury dismissed as “gossip.” Out of the 94 charges made against the four defendants there were no convictions. Of the 17 charges against Al-Arian—including “conspiracy to murder and maim persons abroad’’—the jury acquitted him of eight and was hung on the rest. The jurors disagreed on the remaining charges by a count of 10 to 2 favoring his full acquittal. Two others in the case, Ghassan Ballut and Sameeh Hammoudeh, were acquitted of all charges, dealing another body blow to the government’s case. The May sentencing of Al-Arian contradicted the basis of the jury’s acquittal and the reasoning behind the subsequent plea agreement.
Following the acquittal, a disaster for the government, especially since then-Attorney General John Ashcroft had announced the indictment, prosecutors threatened to retry Al-Arian. The Palestinian professor, under duress, accepted a plea bargain agreement that would spare him a second trial, saying in his agreement that he had helped people associated with Palestinian Islamic Jihad with immigration matters. It was a tepid charge given the high profile of the case. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida and the Counterterrorism Section of the Justice Department agreed to recommend to the judge the minimum sentence of 46 months. But U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. sentenced Dr. Al-Arian to the maximum 57 months. In referring to Al-Arian’s contention that he had only raised money for Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s charity for widows and orphans, the judge said acidly to the professor that “your only connection to orphans and widows is that you create them.”
“The cards were stacked against us,” said the defendant’s daughter, Laila Al-Arian. “The prosecutors showed gruesome videos of suicide bombings in Israel and tried to tie my father to them. He had nothing to do with these attacks. He has always condemned the killing of Israeli and Palestinian civilians. The trial was Orwellian. The government prosecutors would take events and statements that had nothing to do with my father and attempt to connect them to him. This was all about silencing a Palestinian activist, not combating terrorism.”
But all this has not stopped the government from continuing its harassing of Al-Arian. Judge Moody recently ruled that compelling Al-Arian to testify in the grand jury investigation of the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Va., would not violate the plea agreement. Several people close to the case fear that the current attempt to make Al-Arian testify is part of an effort to charge him with perjury and set him up for a new trial. The assistant U.S. attorney in Virginia, Gordon Kromberg, like many involved in the case, has made derogatory and racist comments about Muslims. When Al-Arian’s lawyers asked Kromberg to delay the transfer of the professor to Virginia because of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan they were told “if they can kill each other during Ramadan they can appear before the grand jury.” Kromberg, according to an affidavit signed by Al-Arian’s attorney, Jack Fernandez, also said: “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.”
“Had he said this about any other ethnic or religious group it would have provoked widespread outrage,” said Laila Al-Arian.
And so, although Al-Arian is scheduled to be deported in April 2007, he could now be imprisoned for an additional 18 months. The federal government has placed him in contempt of court because he is refusing to answer questions before the Virginia grand jury.
This trial says legions about the place of Muslims in the United States following the attacks of 9/11. It is part of a ruthless campaign to strip Americans of fundamental rights because of their religious beliefs.
“The jury spoke a year ago when they acquitted my father and the other three defendants,” Laila Al-Arian said. “This is part of a government campaign to silence and intimidate all Muslims in America by persecuting their leaders. It is part of an effort to disenfranchise American Muslims.”
AP Photo / Chris O'Meara
Former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian smiles as he makes his way through the media with his wife, Nahla, left, before entering a courthouse in Tampa, Fla., in 2002. Al-Arian, accused of helping lead a terrorist group that has carried out suicide bombings against Israel, was acquitted on nearly half the charges against him on Dec. 6, 2005. The jury deadlocked on the rest of the charges.